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.
What a day we had! We were in the eye of the storm, lightning striking around us in a 360° circle but this photograph only shows what we were seeing before it started to rain and before the lightning was everywhere! We were soon to be inundated by rain, pelted by hail, threatened by lightning strikes. It was an adventure but not one any of us wants to repeat!
We went to dinner early Tuesday with plans to chase a storm that promised lightning so we could use our MIOPS lightning triggers. We drove into Rapid City for dinner at Sickie’s Garage for burgers and adult milk shakes flavored with Butterfingers, vodka, and Bailey’s (yum!). When we finished dinner, the promising thunderheads had almost completely disappeared leaving the skies clear. Bummer.
Moose always has a Plan B and with the help of a lightning app and a radar app, he found where the storm had moved. Ironically it had moved back in the direction of Custer State Park opposite of its original direction. So, we went to find it although it seemed unlikely to me at first because the skies in Rapid City were cloudless and any potential lightning storm was many miles away. Soon, though, we began to see various kinds of storm clouds developing. It was fun to follow the thunderheads and watch them darken and change before our eyes. As the skies darkened and the sun dipped to the horizon, we began to see lightning strikes in the distant clouds but they were more than 20 miles away. We kept driving. About 8:30 it began to get dark and the lightning became more frequent and much closer. Moose took the opportunity to turn into a drive leading to a local sports club’s soccer field. The locals were quickly abandoning the place as we drove into the empty parking lot. We set up our cameras on the edge of the field with the MIOPS attached and let the MIOPS do the work for us. But we lasted only about 15 minutes. Suddenly, the wind picked up to a fierce howl and a few large drops of rain fell. This was our cue that it was time to go. We grabbed our gear and raced back to the car. In an instant the storm had become ferocious and no sooner had we jumped into the car than the rain began to inundate the area and the lightning moved closer. Strikes were continuous and were all around us.
We drove for a short time but the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the sheets of rain that made seeing the road almost impossible. Then, hail started to pound the roadway and our car. It sounded very large, possibly the size of quarters, as it hit the windshield and roof. We pulled over to get protection from the lee side of a tree. That helped protect us from the brunt of the storm. We were lucky the car came through unscathed. After it let up a bit, we drove off again only to find it was still raining so hard that it was still impossible to see the roadway. We pulled over again, this time by the side of a large industrial building. The storm was quite a spectacle and bolts of lightning were visible all around us. During the first hour of the storm, winds registered 37MPH with gusts to 56MPH. Rain and hail continued non-stop. I had never been in a storm like that. Rainfall for the first two hours of the storm was recorded as 1.91 inches. It seemed like more. When the visibility returned, we set off for Custer State Park again, driving well below the speed limit.
Finally about 3 hours after the storm began, we arrived back at the lodge in Custer State Park. The storm was still raging and continued into the night. What is amazing is that the next morning, the sun was out, the air had cooled a bit from the previous day, and with the exception of a couple of small puddles, there was no indication that the storm had happened. In the park, the dirt roads were dry and dusty, the Bison foraged in the grass, and we were back out for sunrise and more wildlife photography. What a night it was! And even though I took this photograph before the frenzy, this shot will forever remind me of that night.
It is springtime in Custer State Park in South Dakota and there are lots of Bison calves. On our first morning in the park we drove until we found the Bison herd with dozens of young Bison, some so new their umbilical cords were still attached. They were incredibly curious about us. And they are so frisky and adorable. Moose and Richard shot from the vehicle but I was in the front passenger seat and the Bison were to my left on the other side of the vehicle so I got out and shot over the hood. After a while, several of the calves crossed the road with their mothers, some less than 10 feet away. This one stopped in the middle of the road and stared at me for the longest time. Its twin, or buddy, is behind it. A few of the calves and the mothers stopped and watched me too, but because I stayed next to the car, I wasn’t concerned and none of them moved closer. But, when a very large bull approached the other side of the car quickly, Moose shouted for me to get back in the car and I did. First morning’s shooting was over!
On our last morning photographing Kodiak Brown Bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska, I realized I had focused my photography entirely on the bears and neglected to get the big picture of Bear Country. I was quite taken with the pristine landscape on the island and the absence of human intervention. The bears had disappeared briefly so I had an opportunity to use my new Nikkor Z14-24mm f/2.8 lens and take a few landscape shots. The storm clouds were lifting but I wanted to give a dramatic effect to the scene so I shot it in black and white.
The Kodiak Brown Bears I photographed two weeks ago have stolen my heart. Wouldn’t that face steal yours? Our experience with these enormous bears was such a positive one that I can’t help but smile when I think about our daily encounters with them. I have said in previous posts that I never felt concern, fear, or anxiety because our guides, including Moose, were so expert in understanding and recognizing their behavior that we were never in a position of danger. I stumbled a few times, literally and figuratively as I was concerned about my footing walking on wobbly rocks with tripod, camera, and long lens slung over my shoulder so far too often, I looked at my feet instead of keeping my eyes constantly on the bears as we were instructed to do. Toward the end of the week I felt more confidence walking on the rocks and I was able to keep my eyes on the bears and not on my feet. It was such a joy to look up and see that face staring back at me.
One of the first photographs I took in Texas last month was of the colorful and noisy Green Jay, the bird used for the logo of the Santa Clara Ranch where we stayed. Its colors are bright and distinct and like many birds in the crow family (Corvidae), the jays are not only colorful and but they are raucous and gregarious. Over the years I have grown to love all the birds in this family because they are smart and goofy and fun to watch and photograph. This visit to the Santa Clara Ranch, the Green Jays were frequent visitors and we had lots of opportunities to observe their quirkiness.
I love it when I see a bird that is unique to a location and it is doubly wonderful when the perch the bird chooses is also a native. That happened in South Texas last month when, on our first morning in the blinds, a Couch’s Kingbird, a bird native to the southern tip of Texas but rare just slightly north of there, perched on another South Texas native, the Blackbrush Acacia, a type of thorn tree. The Couch’s Kingbird was a new species to me but it visited the water feature every day we were in the blinds so I had several opportunities to photograph it. This was one of my favorites because the perch and the background helped to make a pleasing portrait.
When I was active in the former California Foundation for Birds of Prey organization, I photographed many different Harris’s Hawks that were falconers’ birds. I have always been fascinated by these beautiful raptors and the flight shows they performed were always thrilling to watch and a challenge to photograph. Last month in South Texas, the native Harris’s Hawks were just as challenging to photograph, especially in flight. This bird had just landed on a perch and as it settles its wings, it is keeping a wary eye on the other Harris’s Hawks and Crested Caracaras beneath it.
When I came home from my recent trip to Alaska, the 1969 film “Where Eagles Dare” was on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I tried to watch. It was the second time I have tried to watch that movie all the way through but both times (the first was about 40 years ago on HBO) it failed to capture my interest. I am a fan of both Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood (and a belated happy birthday wish to Clint Eastwood on his 91st, May 31) but somehow the movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe trying a third time will be a charm. That remains to be seen. The movie’s title did make me think of the Bald Eagles I photographed while I was in Alaska, though. Watching them swoop and soar and dive did capture my interest. They are magnificent birds and if any creatures would dare, it would be eagles. It was fun to watch them from a boat on Kachemak Bay and they were close enough that I was able to use my Nikon Z6II with the Nikkor Z 70-200mm lens full frame at 200mm.
The Super Flower Blood Moon was visible form the balcony of my room in Homer, AK last week. I watched it appear from behind the snowcapped mountains about 11 PM, reflecting onto Kachemak Bay. I knew the full lunar eclipse was imminent but couldn’t manage to stay up to photograph it. What I saw was beautiful enough.