It was late in the day, almost 7 PM when I took this photograph in Custer State Park in South Dakota earlier this month. The Bison is backlit but I really like the effect of the rim lighting from the setting sun on the Bison’s fur as well as the fact that she is looking into my lens. I always love that direct connection when the critter looks straight into the camera.
This is a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. Wait! Is it? It’s a ground squirrel all right but maybe it is a Mexican Ground Squirrel. When I took this photograph near the Rio Grande in South Texas in May, I thought it was a Thirteen-lined Squirrel, a type of ground squirrel I recognized from seeing it elsewhere, including in South Dakota. A couple of days later, someone pointed out that the area also has Mexican Ground Squirrels and they look almost identical to the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. I suppose there is a way to tell the difference but a quick look into their ranges shows that they overlap in Texas so short of an expert’s opinion, I’ll probably never know. I’m actually leaning toward Mexican Ground Squirrel because we were so close to Mexico and the location I shot this image was in the middle of that squirrel’s range. So, what’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what is the name, let alone why the name.
The male Bronzed Cowbird, native to South Texas, has iridescent feathers and a distinctive red eye. This blackbird has a fascinating mating display but it is also a parasitic bird that lays its eggs in the nests of unsuspecting birds who then raise the young.
It’s impossible to know what this Kodiak Brown Bear might have been thinking when it stuck its tongue out at us when we were photographing it last month in Alaska. Its mouth agape, with a look somewhere between rudeness, disgust, or maybe just a Gene Simmons impersonation it stared at us with its tongue lolling out of its mouth for a few seconds, then it got up and strolled down the beach.
Watching raptors from blinds at the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas a few weeks ago gave us lots of opportunities to photograph the action. There was plenty of competition among the several raptor species that visited the area. By the numbers, Crested Caracara were the most common visitors but Harris’s Hawks and Black Vultures also competed and even a few Turkey Vultures. It was a real challenge to recognize the patterns so we’d know when the birds were going to leave their perches in order to get the best flight shots. This shot shows off the bird’s wing structure and the patterns of the feathers as it leaves the perch.
In 1927, state legislatures began to designate state birds following a campaign to do so by a large confederation of women’s organizations. Texas and Florida were among the first several states to do so that year, each designating the Northern Mockingbird as its state bird. To date, I have photographed birds that have been chosen by 44 states (many states share a bird) but I have photographed only three of those birds within their respective states: the Nene in Hawaii, the Cactus Wren in Arizona, and the Northern Mockingbird in Texas. I’ve photographed many birds in Florida, but never a Northern Mockingbird there. Five states have designated the Northern Mockingbird as their state bird. Here is a link to a list of all state birds. I think it’s fascinating that the Northern Mockingbird was chosen by so many states (the Northern Cardinal is the choice of 7 states and the Western Meadowlark of 6) when I have seen and photographed so many other types of birds, especially in Texas and Florida, that are unique to those places. Ironically, I have yet to photograph a California Quail, in California or anywhere.
A few wispy white clouds were scattered in the skies above Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska in May, a few weeks ago. Some Bald Eagles were soaring above our small boat, giving us a chance to capture a few photographs of them in the air. Their intense, fixed stare is always fascinating to me. It gives them such an imposing but majestic appearance.
This is the third in a series of posts about why a bird’s name includes a particular characteristic. I certainly don’t have answers and am now completely confused after coming across this photograph of a Long-billed Thrasher. To me, the bill looks curved and it doesn’t appear any longer than that of the Curve-billed Thrasher. The birds are most notably distinguished not by the difference in their bills but by the differences in their feather coloration and patterns, especially on their breasts. I now understand why I used the look of their breast feathers to identify the thrashers, not the length or curvature of their bills.
Pyrrhuloxia. It’s easier to say its Latin name: Cardinalis Sinuatus. The Pyrrhuloxia is the Desert Cardinal, closely related to the Northern Cardinal, cardinalis cardinalis. Pyrrhuloxia seems to be such an odd name for a bird, especially when its Latin name is so much simpler and easier to pronounce. The name Pyrrhuloxia comes from the Greek terms describing its coloration, pyrrhos (reddish or orange) and the shape of its bill loxos (oblique). So there you have it. I’m not sure how Pyrrhuloxia became the preferred common name over Desert Cardinal. But, now that I can pronounce it, peer-uh-LOX-ee-a, I’m good with it!
Sometimes it’s hard to tell why a bird was so-named but it is clear in this photograph that the Curve-billed Thrasher was appropriately named. In South Texas near the Rio Grande where I took this photograph in May, there are Curve-billed Thrashers and Long-billed Thrashers. Most of the time, it was easier for me to tell the difference between these two species, both of which visited the water features there, by the distinctively different colorations on their breasts, not the differences in their bills. But in this photograph, to me, the curved bill is so obvious I wonder why that characteristic didn’t jump out at me when I was there. I guess the difference is that then, the birds came and went so quickly and erratically that identification of the more subtle characteristics like the curvature of the bill, was difficult for me and I paid attention to the more obvious differences.
There were lots of Bison calves in Custer State Park a couple of weeks ago. Some of the calves were brand new, others slightly older and starting to explore their new world. This calf was probably a couple of weeks old and its mother was looking after it, making sure her baby was OK.
Last month, we found about a dozen Bald Eagles at Sadie Cove in Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska. We watched them fly around with the mountains as a backdrop. Very cool to see.
The Kodiak Brown Bears we photographed in late May on Kodiak Island were never menacing. We spent several days photographing many of the same bears (all females, I was told), and the more time I spent with them, the more they seemed like they were approachable. Of course they were not and our guides kept us on our toes and reminded us to keep a 360 degree awareness of them at all times. But, despite their size and reputation, they started to become like old friends because we kept seeing the same bears. And, the biggest compliment to us was when they began to approach us on their own terms, not to menace or threaten but because they were comfortable with us and our gear and must have felt that we were just another type of wildlife grazing with our cameras. This photograph of a bear drinking from a stream to slake her thirst doesn’t have the same cuddly look as the bears I photographed later in the week. While not menacing per se, her snout is upturned almost in a snarl. I took this shot on our first day. I hadn’t yet developed the sense of serenity that I felt most of the week and I hadn’t yet realized that I wanted to portray these massive creatures not as aggressive and dangerous as many people perceive them to be but, as the reality we saw, gentle and benign, more like big teddy bears, grazing cattle, and sleeping dogs.
It was so much fun to be at Custer State Park in the spring. Along with the Bison calves and the Bighorn lambs, the Prairie Dog pups were on display. We saw one family with at least four pups playing a rough and tumble game, even with their mom. The young, no matter what species, always have that irresistible appeal. This duo was rolling around in a scuffle atop their burrow, then they stopped, briefly looked in the direction of my lens, and then continued their playful battle.
Early one morning in Custer State Park, we drove along the Wildlife Loop until we found a good spot to take sunrise photographs because there were some interesting clouds in the sky. As I pointed my lens east for sunrise, I heard Moose say quietly to me, “Carol, don’t move. An Upland Sandpiper is heading right toward you.” Sure enough, the bird was walking directly at me, head down, searching for something to eat. I froze in place and watched as the bird ignored me completely and continued its search closely passing me and not seeming to notice. It was oblivious to all of us. I had a chance to switch from my Nikon Z6II and Nikkor Z14-24mm lens back to my Nikon D6 and 500mmPF lens to capture larger images of the bird. The Upland Sandpiper was so cooperative that we had ample opportunities to photograph the bird. We photographed it for about 20 minutes. Only once did we see that it had been successful in foraging for bugs.
This young Bison used the “no vehicles” sign to rub its horn. This behavior in Bison is common and rubbing can lead to damage by eliminating the bark of trees that Bison rub against. This must be an eco-friendly Bison calf. Of course the more obvious explanation is that there were actually no trees in the meadow so the calf used the only thing available.
Wind Cave National Park, adjacent to Custer State Park in South Dakota, has a huge Prairie Dog Town that is on the edge of a dirt road. Photographing the Black-tailed Prairie Dog from a vehicle there is easy. Circular dirt mounds strewn throughout the native grass fields mark the entrances to Prairie Dog tunnels. But if you’re in doubt, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs spend much of their time on the lookout so they are visible here and there in the middle of the fields. They are small sentinels peeking out of their dens or standing rigid atop them. Their posture is upright and stiff when they’re on duty. They stare unmoving in one direction, then move their heads slightly but not their bodies as they scan the distance for something to worry about. We heard Coyotes howling in the distance so that may have been what had this dog’s attention. We also saw a Red-tailed Hawk grab a Prairie Dog one morning so their concerns are legitimate. When they determine the danger is gone, they signal with chatter or the whole body wave, then go about their business which is usually eating the grass that surrounds their dens.
We spent much of the day in Badlands National Park on Wednesday, starting with sunrise and the partial eclipse, watching Bighorn ewes with their lambs, tracking bison, and ending up at the Visitor’s Center with this view and where we walked up the rise in the foreground of this photograph. I was able to walk up the narrow ridge with confidence. Maybe there is hope that eventually I will conquer my fear of heights and my lack of sure-footedness.
Watching the Bighorn lamb starting to explore its environment was fascinating. I don’t know how old this lamb is but it was sound asleep at its mother’s side when we arrived and began photographing the sheep. It finally rose on its knobby-kneed legs and stared at us for a few seconds. Then, a trio of Cowbirds displaying caught its attention. Curiosity took over and I’m guessing the little lamb had not seen Cowbirds before, at least not a trio of them. It moved slowly toward the birds. But seconds after I took this shot, one of the Cowbirds moved suddenly and that startled the little lamb. It backed away a few steps and never ventured closer. It was delightfully charming to see how this little lamb was starting to piece together its new life as its mother watched from a few steps away.
Thursday morning we were excited to encounter a small band of Bighorn ewes and their lambs in the Badlands Buttes in Badlands National Park. There were several lambs resting with their mothers when we arrived but soon after we started photographing them from the edge of the cliff above, one of the young lambs became impatient and began to explore. It is so young, its umbilical cord, now dried, is still attached. Rocky Mountain Bighorns are able to walk within hours of birth. They are born with the natural grace and agility that allows them to deftly scale the steep rock faces that serve to protect them from predators. We watched in awe as this young lamb scaled the cliff then sprinted across its face without hesitation. While it looked to me that there was nothing to hold onto, the lamb managed to find a foothold for one hoof, then the next without missing a step, allowing it to scamper quickly across. The footholds are such small outcroppings that in the photograph, it looks as if the lamb is hovering in front of the rock face. What a beautiful natural phenomenon to see.