2021—The Flehmen Response

Animal behavior is fascinating. One of the behaviors that Rocky Mountain Bighorn rams exhibit is curling back their upper lip to expose their teeth, inhaling with nostrils closed, holding their head high, and staying still for several seconds. Bighorns have a gland in their mouths that can sense pheromones. I have witnessed this behavior when ewes are nearby and I have been told it is the way rams determine if a ewe is in estrus. This behavior is not limited to sheep. It is common behavior in lots of ungulates and even other kinds of mammals including big cats. And, it has a name. It is called the flehmen response and sometimes, the flehmen grimace. Flehmen is a German verb that means to bare the upper teeth and that word is derived from a Saxon-German word that means to grimace. The term for this behavior was coined in the 1930’s by a zoo keeper in Germany who observed the behavior in many different zoo mammals. There is apparently no English equivalent for this behavior so flehmen it is. It doesn’t really look like a grimace to me. The rams look more euphoric or enraptured than grimacing.

2021—Reminded of a Wedding Corsage

My parents were married in January of 1940 at my grandmother’s house in Alameda, California. Photographs from the event, all black and white or sepia, show my mother wearing an orchid corsage on her simple crocheted dress. When she passed away at age 97 six years ago, I discovered that orchid pressed between pieces of waxed paper in a small box. I suppose it was once white but it is now flat and sepia tone. I kept it and placed it between two sheets of glass. This is a photograph of a living Phalaenopsis Orchid that is actually yellow with reddish streaks. After creating a stacked image from 113 photographs the color seemed dull and uninteresting so I changed the picture control in Adobe Camera Raw from Standard to Charcoal which seems to mimic sepia tone photographs. The change instantly reminded me of my mother’s wedding corsage and I thought the sepia coloring made the image much more appealing.

2021—Pronghorn

Every season in Yellowstone has a decidedly different feel because of time of year, the weather, the color of the landscape, and which animals show themselves. It may seem as if the only ungulates we saw in Yellowstone National Park a couple of weeks ago were Bighorn Sheep but we saw and photographed Elk, Bison, and Pronghorn as well as Bighorns. Pronghorn are diminutive compared to Bison and Bighorn Sheep but they are the fastest land animal in North America. This year we encountered herds every day calmly grazing on the yellowing grasses. It was quite a contrast to last year at this time when we witnessed a pair of Coyotes take down a Pronghorn just a few feet from our van as the rest of the herd used their speed to distance themselves from their unfortunate mate. We watched, awestruck by this Serengeti-like drama without taking a photograph but it was something I’ll never forget. This year, the Pronghorn rarely seemed to be concerned about predators and were often curious about our presence but they returned to grazing as soon as their curiosity was satisfied.

2021—Blending In

It is pretty amazing how critters are colored to help them blend into their surroundings. The coat on this Red Fox in Yellowstone National Park is perfectly suited for its surroundings. The coat has every color in the meadow where it was hunting voles beneath the snow. The fox disappeared when it walked behind a shrub or through a stand of grasses.

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2021—Talking It Over

We found the Bighorns outside of Yellowstone National Park along the Old Yellowstone Road. On our second morning, the sun was out and the sky was cloudless. The rams stuck together in small groups as the ewes and lambs grazed nearby. We eventually found and photographed eleven rams, most with large curls like this pair of rams. I shouldn’t anthropomorphize but I tend to do that. These rams appear to be discussing something, just talking it over.

2021—Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! This is a Liquidambar leaf, from a tree also known as Sweet Gum. I found the leaf in the neighborhood on my walk one morning a few days ago. I thought it had an interesting shape but when I saw the resulting photograph I liked the leaf even more. I can see so many things in it. It could be a bird taking to wing, a cobra preparing to strike, or even a dragon. If you look long enough, you might even see a turkey, something apropos to today. I took this image with my newest lens, the Nikkor ZMC50mm Macro, using only ambient light. It is a focus stacked image created from 243 shots in HeliconFocus.

2021—Big Horns

Those gigantic horns that a Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram carries weigh about 30 pounds. Their bodies are designed to carry the weight. We were so close to these sheep that my Nikon 500mm PF lens was almost too much lens. Had he moved much closer, he would have been out of focus. I was about fifteen feet away from the ram as he munched grasses on the edge of the road just outside of Yellowstone Nationaal Park. This mature ram’s horns show a bit of “brooming,” a term used to describe the frayed ends of the horns that results from wear and tear throughout their lives.

2021—Eating with Mom

The spring lambs were just adorable earlier this month in Yellowstone. They stayed close to their mothers and sometimes were still trying to nurse although the ewes seemed not to be too pleased when the lambs tried. We were thrilled that we had played the game properly and so the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep came closer and closer to us, allowing us to get intimate shots. My Nikkor 500mm PF lens was too much glass for this scenario. At Moose’s suggestion, I carried my tiny NikonZ50 with the Nikkor Z70-200mm lens on a strap on my shoulder so I could quickly switch from my tripod mounted super telephoto lens to a wider angle lens. That’s what happened here. As this duo approached, they over-filled the frame with the 500mm lens so I was able to quickly pick up the smaller camera and lens and shoot seamlessly. Because the Z50 has a DX sensor, the 70-200mm lens becomes a 105-300mm lens which worked out perfectly for me. And, although the Z50 doesn’t have quite as robust an autofocus system as the Z6II, it managed to see past the grass and focus on the lamb’s eyes. I was concerned that it might struggle with that but it performed perfectly.

2021—Playing with Wire

When I watched this Rocky Mountain Bighorn lamb chewing on a discarded piece of wire from a downed fence line, I first thought it was tangled in it. But, I was assured that it was just playing and soon enough, the wire went from a plaything to an abandoned snarl. She’s not playing with fire after all, she’s playing with wire. Kids will be kids. Maybe I should say lambs will be lambs.

2021—Tree Roping

While I was at the Seattle Airport waiting for my flight to Alaska one Sunday last month, I received a text from my next door neighbor offering condolences that the gigantic live oak in my front yard had fallen during the predicted Bomb Cyclone that hit Sacramento that morning. Actually only half of it fell, the four huge front trunks of the multitrunked tree uprooted and toppled completely blocking the street. Luckily, it was early morning and no one was walking or driving by and no cars were parked under it. Friends took care of the immediate problem and the next day, Acorn Arboricultural Services was on the scene. At first they thought the remaining tree could be saved but the arborist sought a second opinion and they finally agreed that my thirty plus year old summer shade tree had to go. Friday morning, Blake, Andrew, and Chuck from Acorn arrived to cut it down. With climbing equipment and safety ropes, Blake ascended the tree and began to saw off branches. As he made his way through the treetop, he moved his carabiners and safety ropes. This shot made me think of steer ropers at a rodeo. It’s a tough job. They did it safely and cleanly. I’m sad to see the tree gone. When we moved into the house, I called it my oak shrub, this multi-trunked live oak that was barely ten feet tall. Thirty years later and at forty feet, it supplied lots of shade. I will miss it.

2021—Heeeere’s Bobo!

I share my home with a curmudgeonly but very colorful Red-lored Amazon Parrot named Bobo. She is 36 years old and next month she will have been my housemate for 20 of her 36 years. She is not the kind of parrot that willingly sits on a hand or shoulder. She would rather maim that hand or take a chunk out of an ear so I have never allowed her on my shoulder. She will step onto my hand without biting me when, and only when, it suits her and not any other time. In my efforts over the years to interact in a positive way with her and modify her behavior, I started positive reenforcement training by rewarding her with treats when she responds appropriately and not rewarding undesirable behavior. My efforts have met with some success but because I travel so much, our interactions are limited. I use a target stick and encourage her to come to me, touch the stick, and when she does, I give her an almond. I keep an open jar of slivered almonds on the table near her cage and she is welcome to sample the treats whenever she chooses. What pleases me is that much of the time, usually in the morning when I’m drinking my coffee, she will come onto the table and wait for me to present the target stick so she can touch it for her almond reward instead of just plunging her head into the jar and munching away which she does when I am not sitting there. I presume that she considers me her flock. Since Bobo is usually my primary subject when I’m trying out a new lens, and since I wanted to try out my new Nikkor ZMC 50mm macro lens, I decided to try photographing her with it while she was enjoying her morning treats on the table. With the Nikon Z6II battery grip attached and with the camera set about 12 inches away from her, the camera stands up high enough without additional elevation to capture all of Bobo. This was a new approach for me because I usually sit in front of her open cage door to photograph her. This time, with the camera on the table and me offering treats for touching the target stick, I pressed the shutter release after I offered the treat. She responded better than I expected and she held still for a slow 1/25 shutter speed, ate her treat, then moved in closer to touch the stick again and get another treat without regard for the proximity of the camera.

2021—A Few of the Big Boys

The band of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that we photographed last week just outside of Yellowstone National Park had eleven rams. Several, like this group of four, were the Big Boys, the elder statesmen so to speak, with the huge curls. Their horns grow into curls as the rams mature and start to curl around their faces when they’re about 8 years old. The horns weigh up to 30 pounds, more than the weight of the animal’s skeleton. Fall is the rut, the season where the rams clash for dominance and when they become very interested in the ewes. The rest of the year, they stay in groups separate from the herd of females and lambs. We saw some efforts at dominance over each other but no great clashes although the mild head butts we did see were also quite audible. When not pursuing their amorous instincts, the rams tended to stick closely together. When one moved, the others followed.

2021—Last Blossom

I love macro photography. I love flowers. And the combination can be magical. My new Nikkor Z MC50mm Macro lens is tiny and light and lets me get in really close to the subject like this California Fuchsia flower. It was early morning and there was a heavy mist that left drops on some of the petals. At first I was concerned about the movement of the blossom from the light breeze but the breeze soon calmed down enough. I set the Nikon Z6II on a tripod and moved it so the camera and lens were the midst of the plant and inches from the subject. To start, I set the image size to square which is what I often do when I take photographs of flowers. I used focus shift shooting so that I could get as much of the flower in focus as possible but keep the background out of focus. For me it is really trial and error deciding how many images will create the desired effect and deciding the distance to move the focus point for each image. For this shot, I took 150 images but only used slightly more than half of them, selecting the first 88 images. My starting point of focus was the pistil which was the part of the subject closest to the lens. As the focus point moved, in the last half of the images, the background came more into focus. I thought this was a distraction since I didn’t want the background in focus so I did not use them to create the final image stack. I used HeliconFocus to assemble the stack and in Adobe Camera Raw, I darkened the background a little more. The California Fuchsia has been a wonderful addition to my garden and the hummingbirds have loved it. This is one of the few remaining blossoms on the plant. It will stop blooming soon. It’s been a fuel source for the hummers all summer. Now they’re transitioning to the Pineapple sage which will stay in bloom for a few months until the spring flowers bloom.

2021—Out Foxed

We may not have seen any wolves, our initial intended target subject, but our trip to Yellowstone National Park last week was sensational despite that. Last week was one of my best ever photo shoots with Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. And, on our last day in the park, we spotted a Red Fox in the same meadow that we saw one last year. It is possible that it’s the same Red Fox. We first saw her (it could have been a male) far off in the meadow. But, like last year, she moused her way toward us, crossed the road hear us, then returned to the meadow to mouse again. At first it was just our group but once someone stops in Yellowstone, everyone passing by stops too. At least traffic was at a minimum due to the weather and the fact that most of the park closed the first weekend in November leaving just one road open in the park. One car stopped in the middle of the road, leaving driver and passenger doors wide open. They never seemed to understand the inconvenience they caused to other visitors by doing this. Most others that stopped were more courteous. Then there was the guy who this Red Fox out-foxed. First he parked near us. When the fox moved away, he drove down the road and parked in a camp ground parking lot. He stood on the edge of the meadow trying to locate where the the fox had moved. But by this time we’d watched the fox cross the road behind him. When he finally realized where the fox was he began to pursue it, the fox always two steps ahead. At one point, the fox made a bee-line toward his car in the parking lot and Moose was sure the fox was headed to pee on the guy’s tire. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the fox did. The guy didn’t see that but he when he spotted the fox again, he quickly walked after it, chasing it off into the woods, not to return. When the guy realized he wasn’t going to get any photographs of the fox except photos of it running away from him, he got in his car, stopped to tell us that the fox was in the woods by the campground, then drove off. We’d had more luck with the fox before the guy arrived because we respected it and kept our distance. We were all gleeful that the guy was out-foxed by this Red Fox.

2021—Best Sheep Day Ever!

The Bighorn Sheep were waiting for us Friday morning when we drove up Old Yellowstone Road. And what a day of sheep photography! For me it was the best day with Bighorn Sheep I’ve ever experienced. We played the game and they responded. The Big Boys, the rams with huge curls, joined in the fun, evening approaching us on the road so close I had to give up my 500mm lens for my 70-200 at one point. I carried the smaller lens with my Nikon Z50 on a strap on my shoulder so I wouldn’t miss any opportunities for a photograph. This is one of the Big Boys following the scent of one of the ewes who was playing hard to get. The dusting of snow on the ground from the previous day’s storm made the perfect background.

2021—Snowy Morning

Snow arrived on the Old Yellowstone Road Thursday morning. As the wind picked up and the sky darkened and the clouds closed in, we watched the Bighorn Sheep on the knoll and in the meadow as they hunkered down anticipating the storm. Even as the snow began to fall and the wind whipped up blowing the snow sideways, a few of the rams stood up and faced off, shoving and displaying dominance. We braced ourselves, left the warm vehicle and took photographs. At 19°, it was invigorating and we captured some great moments.

2021—Playtime

Day Two in Yellowstone was another successful day of photography starting with a band of Bighorn Sheep. We had encountered this band on our way out of the park the night before and were pleased they were still in the area when we returned about 8AM. There were more than forty individuals on Old Yellowstone Road, mostly females and immature males, when we arrived. Nearby, a group of eleven mature rams, including a couple of rams with really big curls, was headed our way…well, headed toward the ewes anyway, We on the side of the road midway between the rams and the larger band of ewes and young sheep that we were photographing in the meadow. We spent almost two hours with these sheep who seemed to accept our presence because we played the game right. When the light got harsh, we packed up, just as the eleven rams decided to take a rest and they all lay down right in front of us. While we were there, a pair of frisky young males were comfortable enough to play a game of chase as we looked on.