2018—Something Wicked This Way Comes

Turkey Vultures are ugly.  They seem synonymous with evil.  We watch them circle overhead as they close in on a dead carcass.   Their unattractive—some might even say repugnant—appearance and preference for scavenging roadside carrion create a wicked, sinister aura.  But, what if there are three vultures,  not soaring as we most commonly observe them, but three vultures up close, hunched menacingly in a tree, fog surrounding them?  Their malevolence is palpable.  Something wicked this way comes.


Vultures Waiting.jpg


If ever there were a true depiction of Eeyore, the depressed and morose donkey conjured from A.A. Milne’s imagination in the Winnie the Pooh books, this burro from Custer State Park in South Dakota, must be it.  This burro and his compatriots are known in the park as the Begging Burros.   They are said to be descended from the burros abandoned by the gold miners after the Black Hills Gold Rush of the mid 1870’s played out.  While the other burros surrounded our vehicle and tried to stick their snouts into any open or partially open window, this sad burro did not move nor did he break from his “woe is me” demeanor.


2018—A Cloud of Wings

The hummers have been elusive the past couple of weeks.  Wednesday morning I noticed at least three frolicking in the fountain.  I didn’t see them clearly so I’m not sure if there were any mature males in the group but one of the females stuck around when I went outside to refill the feeders.  So I went back inside, attached the 1.4x teleconverter to the D500 with the 300mm f/4 PF and walked outside again.  The female Anna’s took her time sipping the nectar from the salvia blossoms and I was just a few feet away.  At slower shutter speeds, the wings are very blurred and the camera captures ghost images of the wings at various positions.  The wings appear  to surround the little bird like a cloud.  Focal length 420mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/60s

Hummer at salvia .jpg

2018— “Nevermore”

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.” This is Edgar.  Edgar is a Raven.  The source of his name should be obvious but if you aren’t familiar with The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, you should be.   Edgar is a delightfully animated bird and with trainer Tony Suffredini, he put on quite the performance in his quest for treats at the California Foundation for Birds of Prey Open House recently.  I didn’t hear him quoth “nevermore” but I have no doubt he could be taught to do so.  Ravens are among the smartest, if not THE smartest, birds in the animal kingdom.  Edgar didn’t stray far from Tony during his performance.  He knew the source of his treats.  And, unlike some birds I know, well a particular Amazon  I live with,  he doesn’t bite the hand that feeds him.

Edgar and tony 1

Edgar and Tony 3

Edgar and Tony 4.jpg

2018—Prairie Dogs in the Grass

One of the things I missed while we were in South Dakota was the prairie dog pups.  Two years ago there were lots of prairie dog pups popping out of random burrows but unlike my visit two years ago, there were no adorable pups to entertain us this time.  My preference for photographing these cute creatures is with the 600mm lens because the depth of focus is so narrow with that lens that the subject is unmistakable.  Everything in front of the narrow plane of focus and everything behind it is blurred.  In the first photograph below, I used the 600mm lens from a distance.

In the second photograph, I used the 300mm and shot from the car.  Although I was much closer to the prairie dog,  I really prefer the depth of field in the first because the subject is the only thing that is in focus and there are no distractions.  In the second, even though the prairie dog is larger in the frame, everything around it, including the grasses and the dirt, seem to compete with the prairie dog.

Prairie Dog peekaboo

Prairie Dog in burrow


No, not Merlin the Magician of the King Arthur legends.  I’m talking about Merlin the falcon,  one of the smallest raptors, about the size of a robin, and only slightly larger than the American Kestrel which is the smallest falcon.   This Merlin came under the care of the California Foundation for Birds of Prey a couple of years ago with a broken wing after being trapped in a barbed wire fence.  It is now an education bird for CFBP.  Damage to the bird’s foot, a missing talon, is clearly visible.  His diminutive size is apparent as he perches on the gloved hand of Kim, his diminutive female handler.


Merlin 2.jpg

2018—Missing Profile

He’s back there somewhere!  Two years ago when I visited Mount Rushmore for the first time, I took the first photograph below of George Washington’s profile from  a vantage point around the side from the typical front view of the monument.  This year, the fog completely enveloped us and George.  For comparison, I took a photograph in the direction of George’s 60 foot tall profile but could only guess where it might be.  On review, I realize two years ago I was closer to the end of the parking lot so the tree on the left does not appear in the photograph but the cluster of trees on the right is in both photographs.  Even Adobe Camera Raw’s powerful Dehaze filter produced only a brownish smudge where the mountain and George are.

George In Profile

George at Rushmore in the fog.jpg

2018—A Flying Movie Star

I’m  not talking about John Travolta or Harrison Ford.  Meet Shytran, a Saker Falcon trained by Tony Suffredini, a professional animal trainer and master falconer.  Shytran is a movie star and put in an appearance at the California Foundation for Birds of Prey’s annual open house recently with flight demonstrations.  One of the movies that features Shytran is Hidalgo, a 2004 feature film also starring Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif.  I have not seen the movie and Netflix has it only on DVD so I will have to wait a while to see Shytran in action in the movies.  In the mean time, I managed to capture some of her flight demonstrations at the CFBP Open House.

The Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) is a large falcon, only slightly smaller than the Peregrine Falcon.   It breeds from Eastern Europe across Asia to Manchuria.  It is a popular falconry bird, especially in the Middle East, but it is now endangered in the wild.  These birds are capable of diving after prey at 200 mph but their average horizontal flying speed while much slower, at 50-60mph is still a challenge to keep in the viewfinder, let alone to photograph.

I managed to get a few that didn’t clip the wings but it was not easy to keep track of such a fast flying bird circling in the relatively small space surrounded by trees.  I used my Nikon D500 with 300mm PF lens.  Because the D500 is a crop frame camera, I was effectively shooting at 450mm.  For me, this is the perfect birds-in-flight camera and lens combination.  If I add a 1.4X teleconverter, my focal length is 600mm extending the reach even further in an extremely lightweight package and no tripod needed!

I love my full frame Nikon D5 and 600mm prime lens and I will continue to use them to capture gorgeous wildlife photographs that I can’t get any other way but that combination is a monster. I must use a heavy duty Gitzo Series 5 Tripod and a gimbal head to accommodate the pair.  Although the gimbal head and the tripod are both carbon fiber which makes them relatively lightweight, together they weigh just under 10 pounds and the 600mm lens and the Nikon D5 together weigh 11.5 pounds making that rig almost 21.5 pounds.  Add on the teleconverter and I’m picking up 22 pounds and slinging it (so to speak) over my shoulder in search of wildlife. While I am used to and able to do that, I love having the freedom of the lightweight D500/300mm combination, a mere 3.5 pounds.

saker falcon flight 3

Saker falcon flight 5

saker falcon flight 1


Communication in Prairie Dog Town is a combination of audibles and visuals.  Apparently their language is quite sophisticated as described in an article published in Scientific American and their vocal communications can distinguish between types of predators or intruders in their territory.  One of the more fascinating aspects of their communication system is the jump-yip (as described in the above-referenced article) or, as is it is often compared to, The Wave as seen in sports stadiums around the world.

The jump-yip is contagious and when one prairie dog jumps up, stretches back, and yips, it starts a chain reaction of prairie dogs jumping up and yipping in quick succession.  Then, as quickly as it starts, it is over and the prairie dogs return to their burrows and watch for another opportunity to jump-yip.

Prairie Dog Glee.jpg

2018—Car Chase

Sunday was the annual open house for the California Foundation for Birds of Prey (CFBP), a local raptor rescue group for which I volunteer.  CFBP’s Golden Eagle Rehabilitation Program was developed ten years ago and now encompasses the Pacific Flyway states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.   The program’s guidelines have been widely distributed to Federal and State wildlife agencies in those areas with promising results.   The rehabilitation techniques and recommendations in the document address the unique physical and behavioral traits of Golden Eagles, and the challenges inherent in the successful housing, training, conditioning, and release of suitable candidates.  Master falconers take on the responsibility of the lengthy rehabilitation of Golden Eagles with the ultimate goal of release to the wild.

To date, more than 25 eagles have been released or have become education birds.  Currently there are 9 eagles in the program, including Vickie, a Golden Eagle named for Vickie Joseph, DVM, a renowned avian veterinarian and founder of CFBP.  Vickie (the Golden Eagle) is here with her Master Falconer Tony Suffredini for a final physical evaluation (by Vickie the vet) before being released.  She and Tony showed off her hunting abilities with a car chase, using a remote controlled car trailing a “rabbit” lure.

Last year was Vickie’s first free flight in rehabilitation and she performed perfectly.  Because of the layout of the area, the photographs I took of that flight last year were “butt” shots.  So, this year, I asked Tony where I could position myself for better photographs without interfering with the flight.  He put me in the perfect place and steered the remote controlled car directly toward me.  This sequence shows Vickie pursuing the car, flying directly toward me, then pouncing and capturing the prize.  The last shot is Vickie and Tony after the performance.   The wires dangling from Vickie’s legs hold a telemetry device that tracks the bird.

This year, I invited the Placer Camera Club to the open house and about 14 of us descended on the rural Lincoln property that houses huge flight chambers and mewses and lots of raptors.  What a fun afternoon.

Golden Eagle car chase 1

Golden Eagle in flight 1

Golden eagle car chase 2

golden eagle car catch 1

Golden eagle after the chase

2018—Bird Box #20

One of the roads in Custer State Park has a barbed wire fence that has nesting boxes affixed to some of the wooden posts.  Each box is identified by a number.  BB 20 was inhabited by a pair of tree swallows.  One of the swallows peeks out as we watched from the road.  I took this photograph the first morning in the park.  It was the only time during the four days that we had any sun and this was one of the few birds I had an opportunity to photograph there.   When I was there two years ago,  Western Meadowlarks, Mountain Bluebirds, and Red-winged Blackbirds were frequent visitors to this fence, perching obligingly on the posts and singing for us.  The cooler and foggier conditions seem to have kept the birds away.

Bird Box 20 tree swallow.jpg

2018—Mama Bison and Calf in the Fog

The fog in Custer State Park, SD persisted throughout our time there.   This mother bison and her calf were across the road up on a ridge, probably less than 100 feet from us.  And the dense mist hung in the air between our lenses and our subjects.  It was quite a challenge to make successful photographs under these conditions.  One thing that helped was to increase exposure compensation both to bring out the subjects and at the same time, still show the fog.

Mama Bison and calf.jpg

2018—Grazing in the Fog

Most of the four days I spent in Custer State Park in South Dakota were foggy.   The fog hung low to the ground and thickened throughout the day.  Visibility was often less than 50 to 75 feet which made photography a challenge.  Sometimes, our subjects disappeared in the mist.

Most of my photographs of grazing bison, like this one, show them shrouded in fog.

Black Hills-Custer Day 2 PM 3796 -1.jpg

2018—Ben Franklin’s Preference?

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin didn’t propose the Wild Turkey over the Bald Eagle as the official symbol on the Great Seal of the newly formed United States of America as is commonly thought.  He did, however, according to the Franklin Institute,  write in a letter to his daughter that he thought the eagle on the seal looked more like a turkey.  He stated that he saw the bald eagle as a “Bird of bad moral Character and one that does not get his Living honestly” whereas the turkey was “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” Thus, a myth was born.

I can see how Franklin might have favored the wild turkey after photographing an agitated tom last week in Custer State Park in South Dakota.   But it has nothing to do with the moral character of the turkey over the eagle. It’s the tom’s ability to display our nation’s official red, white, and blue colors.  This tom, suspecting another male was in the area when his hen was nearby, was agitated and raced back and forth across the prairie grasses, searching for his competitor.

These six photographs show the color changes as the state of his agitation increased, then waned again.  First, he fanned his tail feathers while the colors on his wattle and head changed.   His wattle turned from brilliant red to a silvery white while the blue in his head intensified.

I took these shots from the vehicle using my Nikon D5 with the 300mm PF f/4 with 1.4 Teleconverter.

First, Mr. Tom is minding his own business trying to impress a hen nearby.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 1913 -1

Mr. Tom hears the gobble of another turkey.   Competition.  His feathers rouse.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 1930 -1

Within a few minutes, Mr. Tom has crossed the road in search of his nemesis, agitated and turning bluer in the face while his red wattle pales to a silvery white.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 1996 -1

He heads off in search of the competition.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 2021 -1

Back across the road, Mr. Tom climbs a small knoll then heads down the other side, still unable to find the the other male.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 2154 -1

Finally convinced he has no competition, he calms down and the skin on his head and wattle return to their normal colors.  Having had the courage to seek his rival, he can once again display his feathers for the hen, and return to his vain and silly self.

Black Hills-Custer Day 1 PM 2655 -1.jpg

2018—Wobbly Baby

There is something irresistible about baby animals.  Bison calves are no exception.  Here in Custer State Park in South Dakota, bison calves are dropping.  The calves are reddish brown, much lighter in color than the mature adults who are a dark, blackish brown.  This  adorable  week-old calf approached us unafraid on the road where we’d stopped one afternoon.   It seemed to be searching for its mother who at the time was no where in sight.  There were three bulls up a hillside nearby but they were ignoring the calf who wandered toward us as if to ask, “Where’s my mom?”  I knelt on one knee and turned my camera to vertical to get this shot as the little one looked directly at me and wobbled in my direction. The young calf, its umbilical cord still attached, eventually went back up the hillside and lay down near the bulls until finally, mom arrived.  I took this shot with the Nikon D5; 300mm PF lens; and 1.4x teleconverter.

Bison Calf.jpg

2018—Two Views of A Red Barn

I photographed quite a few red barns while I was in the Palouse in April.  This one was particularly lovely as the light from the sinking sun highlighted its face.  We first photographed it from across a road and field.  Then, we drove closer and photographed it from the fence line that surrounded the property, about where the boulders are in the first photograph.  For the first photograph, I used the 70-200mm lens at 200mm.   Because we were so much closer for the second, I used my 24-70mm lens at 58mm.

N.B.  This post’s for you, Big Bro!

Palouse red barn 3.jpg

Palouse Red Barn 2.jpg



Once when I was a kid, I read a book that used the word “counterpane.”  Puzzled by the word, I looked it up in the dictionary where I discovered that a counterpane is a quilt or bed covering.   I do not recall the book’s title or even what its subject was,  but I do remember it had an illustration of a lumpy quilt on a bed viewed from the perspective of the person in the bed under the quilt.  This photograph from Steptoe Butte in the Palouse reminds me of that old illustration.  The rolling hills crisscrossed by evenly plowed rows bring to mind a plaid or checkered pattern.  Imagine laying in a bed, sheets tucked under your chin, looking across the rumpled, checkered counterpane toward your feet at the end of the bed.  I converted the photograph to black and white so it looks almost as if the “counterpane” is lit by moonlight though a window.