The baby Mourning Doves are growing up fast. Just four days ago they had pin feathers and skin showing. Now they’re little fluff balls. As the chicks grow, Mama Dove sits up higher and higher on the nest, her charges barely fitting under her. I had a scare this morning. I noticed Mama Dove was not on the nest so I took the opportunity to peek in. Only one little chick was in the nest. Or so I thought. The nest is pretty cramped quarters on the edge of a hanging basket that has lots of scraggly vegetation left over from last year’s flowers that takes up most of the space. I assumed the worst and checked all around the nest to see if the one chick had fallen out. No luck. Then both parents landed atop the pergola from which the basket/nest hangs. They kept looking down toward the nest. Being inappropriately anthropomorphic, I assumed it was because they knew one was missing. Then Mama Dove flew to an iron bracket next to the basket and stared at the one chick in the nest for what seemed to me an eternity, finally hopping into the nest where the one chick eagerly began to feed. I went out with my Nikon D6 and Nikkor 500mmPF lens with an extension tube attached so I could be a little closer than the normal minimum focusing distance for the lens. And a second chick’s head emerged behind Mama Dove! What a relief. How that little bird could have been so hidden from view is a mystery. After feeding, the adult Doves both flew off and gave me an opportunity to photograph both chicks.
Greater Prairie Chickens and their close counterparts, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, both expend a lot of energy on little skirmishes with rival males in hopes of impressing a female of their species. The Greater Prairie Chickens seem to have fiercer and more prolonged battles than the grouse. This male has launched into the air, flying at his adversary who is almost invisible underneath him in the dense prairie grasses.
The reverberating dances on the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek are almost non-stop for the two hours just at and after sunrise. The dances of the Sharp-tailed Grouse seem more purposeful and choreographed than the dances of their neighbors, the Greater Prairie Chickens. Watching them makes me feel that some Native American dances must have been derived from watching these intricate dances on the prairie. At first, two rivals will face each other in a stare-down and then, with no perceived trigger, both males will suddenly stand and begin the dance, whirling left then right then left again, their sharp tails back to back like beacons. In fact, despite the terrain and the thick grasses, those beacons helped us find them. Even in dim early morning light before it was possible to take photographs, the first thing we could see were those white tail feathers.
There was almost non-stop dancing during our last morning on the lek. The rat-tat-tat of their feet drumming on the prairie echoed across the fields. Sometimes it was almost impossible to tell where they were drumming because the acoustics were such that the jack-hammer sounds surrounded us in our plywood blinds feeling as if they were just inches from us but the birds were really yards away, scattered around the lumpy terrain and partially hidden in the dried grasses. Their pointed white tails made spotting them, wherever they were, easy, the perfect beacons.
One of the original 55 top secret high altitude U-2 reconnaissance jets of the Cold War flies indoors now at the Strategic Air Command Museum in Ashland, Nebraska, at a significantly lower altitude. The sleek and streamlined U-2 flies at 70,000 feet, higher than any other aircraft and has a wingspan of 103 feet. Dubbed the Dragon Lady, the U-2 was catapulted into the headlines when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR on May 1, 1960 during a spying mission. U-2 and Francis Gary Powers became household names.
Growing up in the early Cold War era with all its hype of the Red Peril and of Doomsday imminence, I was fully aware, even at age 13, of the significance of this event. I followed the story closely in the newspaper. The US denied the U-2 was a spy plane and issued a cover story that it was doing high altitude weather research for NASA. Already strained US-Soviet relations rapidly deteriorated when photos of the recovered U-2 wreckage and of Powers as a prisoner of war were published. When I read that Powers had been taken prisoner, that he had survived being shot down, I was relieved. And then I was horrified to learn that he was branded a coward or traitor by some for not destroying secret information on his aircraft before it crashed or for not taking his own life before being captured by the Soviets. The crisis that followed made me worry that we were one step closer to World War III.
Of course that didn’t happen and Powers was released in a famous prisoner exchange after 2 years of captivity. But seeing this aircraft so close gave me chills. Using may brand new Nikkor Z14-24mm f/2.8 lens with the Nikon Z6II I was able to capture the entire 103 foot wingspan standing on the museum balcony underneath the airplane.
While I was away, the Mourning Dove eggs hatched and there are two nestlings now! This is only the second time I have knowingly had a bird nesting in my yard and I am thrilled. Just before I left for Nebraska, I noticed a Mourning Dove settling down inside one of my hanging baskets on the patio. According to the book “Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings” the male and female Mourning Doves usually lay two eggs and share nest building, nest sitting, and feeding duties. The male sits during the day and the female has nighttime duty. The changing of the guard tends to occur late afternoon and when I took this photograph Sunday afternoon, it was almost 5PM so I don’t know if this is Mom or Dad. The adult had vacated the nest so I ran out hoping to see how many chicks were in the nest. One little head looked back at me! I didn’t want to disrupt anything so I went inside. When I looked out a few minutes later the adult had returned and was feeding two nestlings! I grabbed my Nikon D6 with the 500mm PF and went back out. Doves produce “crop milk” which they feed the young and these little guys were tanking up. They have just a little bit of down and feather follicles and mostly bare skin so they need their parents to keep them warm at least until they get some protection.
The main challenge at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek on Friday morning was making sure that the ever present prairie grasses didn’t obscure the faces of the Grouse in our photographs as they faced each other down and performed their ritual mating dances. Because of the bumpy terrain and the unevenness of grasses and plants, it was almost impossible to get a clear path to photograph them because we were at eye level with the birds. Even using the largest aperture which theoretically makes something in the foreground almost disappear so the subject appears sharp behind it didn’t always work because the grouse seemed to dip their heads low behind a dense mass of dried grass at the critical moment. The one time the opportunity for a clear path to photograph without obstruction presented itself was when the birds jumped up and flew a few feet to challenge another rival. Ah, but this presented yet another challenge——knowing when the bird was going to take off. That proved to be virtually impossible and any success on my part was the result of dumb luck and a reflex spasm that resulted in pressing the shutter release at the exact moment with the focus on the bird.
I’m not grousing! In fact, this year I’m thrilled that we were able to photograph Sharp-tailed Grouse again! In 2019, when we last visited the Switzer Ranch in Nebraska to photograph Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse, I was grousing because a blizzard kept us from photographing the Sharp-tailed Grouse on their lek. The last time I photographed these fascinating birds was in 2018. This year, with changes in the way the Switzer Ranch is operating as we emerge from Pandemic mode, we had the opportunity to shoot on a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek we’d not visited before. For the first time, we were shooting from small blinds set up next to the lek so we gained a unique perspective that put us on the same level as the birds. To me, photographing birds on their level is the perfect way to photograph Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Closely related to the Greater Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse also have a complex mating ritual that they perform for a brief period in spring, facing off in stare-downs and sparring bouts with other males on their lek. Their display calls are different from those of the Chickens and they stamp their feet to create a jack hammer like sound that resonates across the fields. Thursday morning started off clear and cold but after a brief rosy glow from the sunrise, the clouds returned. The sparring birds still thumped and hooted and chattered and tried to intimidate their sparring partners despite the overcast sky. Just seconds before these two birds called it quits temporarily and looked to see what was going on around them, they had been sparring. Seconds after I took this shot, they resumed the business at hand.
It’s been two years since I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Sand Hills of Nebraska with one of the last thriving native grasslands in the country and where Greater Prairie Chickens still return to their leks in a month-long annual courtship ritual. A planned trip last year had to be postponed like so many other long-planned events everywhere due to the Pandemic.
With restrictions eased, we were able to return this year but things are a bit different here at the Switzer Ranch, a large working cattle ranch. We are the only visitors to observe the Prairie Chickens and their sparring this year. Our observation posts are plywood blinds that are a bit cramped and a bit uncomfortable not the spacious converted school buses we were used to from prior year visits. But the two to three hour show in the early morning is worth the cramped conditions and the frigid weather.
While it is still dark, we crawled as silently as possible into the low, drafty structures carrying in our tripods and camera bags. Inside we sat on milk crates, set up our gear and waited for the show to begin. It starts before the light comes up with the booming calls of the Prairie Chickens, an unforgettable sound that resounds over the prairie. The booming sounds are created by inflating air sacs on their necks. As the sun rises, pairs of sparring birds become visible. They are facing off in a stare-down with the occasional skirmish where they try to claw each other with their talons. These stare downs often end with no sparring, just booming sounds and glares. The presence of a female sends the males into a frenzy of skirmishes and showing off. Here, a male Prairie Chicken skulks away from a stare-down with a rival, the raised feathers on his head beginning to droop and the orange air sacs on his neck deflating. No victory for him this time.
The light playing on the Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park is ephemeral. The light is in constant flux as the sun rises and reflects off the rocks and the shadows mold the vista. Together they create views that last mere moments and that change constantly offering fleeting glimpses that some never see. The best light that creates the most memorable and astonishing sights of the canyon is early morning. This shot was taken about 7:30AM, perhaps a half hour after sunrise that day. The light jumps around the Hoodoos, moving from spire to spire and within an hour or so, it becomes harsh and much of the magic is gone. Over the years I’ve seen many photographs of the Hoodoos in Bryce. They are always impressive and a rarity that illustrates how our planet was molded and changed through millennia. However the incredible magic that the ephemeral light creates and that I witnessed and photographed was beyond anything I was prepared to see. I was awestruck.
The views of Hoodoos in Bruce Canyon National Park are mesmerizing with the shapes and patterns they create reminiscent of just about anything one’s imagination can concoct. The time of day makes a difference in how the light plays on the rocks and creates shadows. The light is harsher later in the day when I took this photograph about 6PM at Bryce Point so instead of shooting it in color, I opted for my new favorite monochrome setting, Graphite, #18 on a Nikon Z body. In Graphite, the formations remind me of a forest of pine trees, it never would have given me that impression if I’d taken it in color.