Just A Few Heart Beats Later

Rocky Mountain Bighorn lamb captured by D6 / 180-400VR

There always seems to be some sort of magic in nature just before the sun comes up. The magic can be incredibly grand and expected or a total surprise. But some of the best are the small things, the moments in nature that reaches out and touches your soul. That was our experience a week back in the Badlands of South Dakota.

We had seen the normal groups of Rocky Mtn Bighorn Sheep along the rim, not a surprise for the time of year. I had told my friends to look for lambs as they drop them at this time (drop as in give birth). We stopped a couple of times to watch the ewes but no lambs insight. The Badlands is a great place for the Sheep as they can in a flash escape into its many ledges, canyons, and crevices. We kept on wiggling down the road photographing the spectacular landscape and critters but no lambs. But it was still early.

We were rounding the bend near the south end of the road. It was a locale I had photographed sheep before so I took my eyes off the road and looked over my shoulder. There were two ewes lying on the ridge. Knowing a little about their biology, I pulled over on the other side of the road and slowly walked back to see what was up. That’s when the magic of morning kissed our day!

Lying tightly up against their moms and not visible from the road were two newborn lambs. One still had its umbilical cord attached (though dry) so it was just heartbeats away from first wandering this planet. Well, we slowly, quietly set up to watch life unfold. For the next hour, I watched in amazement through the D6 / 180-400VR the lambs start to explore their new world.

The “oldest” of the two was full of wonder and one of the first things to greet it this morning was a group of Grackles on the ridge. It was not sure about them at all! It kept looking back at the ewe as to get some sort of reassurance that it was OK. Every time the birds moved, the lamb stopped dead in its tracks until finally, they flew off and its attention went elsewhere. When we last saw the two lambs, they had just finished running back up the sheer slope they had just run down, disappearing with the ewes over the top. Not before jumping and playing on that sheer slope that appeared near vertical to us. But to them, just a big playground to express their new found energies and footing. I’m grateful the once again Mother Nature had magic this morning to share with us, newborn lambs just a few heartbeats later.

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… and a Dollar Short?

South Dakota Badlands / Solar Eclpise captured by Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8 w/ Z1.4x

You’d think that getting up at 03:30 and in place long before sunrise, you’d nail it. Well, if you were trying to see and/or photograph the solar eclipse a couple of weeks past, you’d know that not only the getting up that early is required. If you’re in South Dakota at sunrise you’re way too far west to see it. Well, that fact really didn’t stop me, obviously. You then have to question if the shot itself is worth that effort? Now there’s a conversation to have!

If you have somewhat of a handle on dew point and winds and know the landscape, you might be able to guess how much “stuff” or haze might be in the air to make the sunrise more than just a glowing ball. A glowing ball does work if all the other conditions are in place. They were not in this case as when the sun broke the horizon, the haze simply wasn’t attractive. But just five minutes later as you can see, and the haze worked in my favor. You might be wondering about that tower, why did I leave that in. It can easily come out. I’m not sure why I like it, perhaps scale. I dunno, just did. The point is that when you have an opportunity no matter how bland or grand, follow your heart and you’ll always come out ahead and probably a dollar richer :-)

Time with The Browns

Kodiak Brown captured by D6 / 180-400VR w/TC-14eIII

Where the Uganik River empties into the bay are vast coastal sedge grass flats. When you fly over or cruise the coast in a boat, the vast green comes crashing down the mountains emptying into the bay except where the river empties. Centuries of times have brought down the sediment creating a fertile landscape supporting a vast garden of Eden of grasses that grows as tall as your head. It’s in this forest the giants come to forage like cattle, fattening in early spring on this lush garden. They bring their young, they find new mates and they start their summer amongst the flats. This is where we spent a week amongst the Kodiak Browns.

Kodiak Browns are recognized as different from those you might find on Alaska’s mainland or Yellowstone. The one thing that makes them different is, they are the giants! A large mainland Griz would be the smallest Kodiak Brown. This size thing is what makes them the scariest of all the bears to folks. This fear comes from misinformation and myth and not the reality of being with them. Yes, you surprise a Kodiak Brown just like any Griz, they will run you over, and then after you are there flattened, badly hurt, do they turn around to see what they just ran over. So DON’T surprise a bear. Simple. That’s how we spent the week amongst them!

The vast beauty of Kodiak Island is the stunning backdrop for our Brown experience! We boated up from the rustic Bear Camp (no electricity, no running water, no internet :-) ) in shallow bottom craft permitting us to access up the river at high tide. We traveled into the sedge flats by boat about a mile passing Browns, some with cubs, as they fed, slept, doing that bear thing. We would put in and wearing hip boots, get out and then wait, watch, and revel in it all! I shot the whole time with the D6 / 180-400VR w/TC-14eIII. I used the length not because we needed to keep our distance from the Browns but because the water world of the sedge flat didn’t permit us to travel just anywhere we wanted.

It’s really pretty simple, you plant yourself and let the Browns do their thing. When done correctly, they “accept” you as part of the landscape so they eventually come to you. That’s what they did over and over again. We had at least twenty-two individual bears surrounding and amongst us during the week. One, the 700lbs 6 year old female you see here in these images was by far our favorite. She invited us into her world over and over again as she ate, shit, slept, and played about the grasses as only a Brown of that size can.

The grasses were only about 2-3 feet tall at the time of our Adventure so it was safe to be out in them. Once they got taller, being on the sedge flats is very dangerous. Remember, DON’T surprise a bear! This female would eat to its heart content and then as all bears do, fall asleep in the sun. They are the perfect couch potato with really only one thing on their mind, get fat and go to sleep in the winter.

As you go through the images you will see one image where just the very top of her head is visible and the next, you can see all 700lbs of her. One aspect of the Browns that amazes folks is how this large animal can disappear in literally no cover. This fact alone is why you DON’T chase after bears but let them approach on their own account. It means you need to be where they like to hang and then hang yourself. You might spend hours upon hours standing in the sun or rain or wind waiting, watching. You might not take any photos or a couple thousand in a matter of minutes. It means you have to love simply being in their world, amongst them knowing that at some point, they will be right with you.

You will see some images with LOTS of Brown in the frame. That’s from those moments, which were many, that they came right up to use. No, I carry no spray, no gun, just decades of experiences being amongst them keeping me safe. This female came as close as fifty feet a number of times while she fed. There was not once a tinig of fear only admiration and awe. I know of or have experienced nothing in this world like time with the Browns!

There are 16 images here, click on arrow to view them all. You can see a larger collection of images from our Adventure on my Portfolio Pages.

Summer Thunder

Blackhills Thunder captured by Z 6II / Z14-24f2.8 & Miops

We went into dinner and the sky was filling with them big battleships of the sky forming up overhead. We had a great storm two night’s previous (below) and with prior history with storms in the Blackhills of SD, new what we saw walking in meant great fun. We walked out 90 minutes later to clear skies! I went to my wx apps and saw a storm forming on the dry line south of us so off we dashed. We drove an hour south only to see the storm going were we couldn’t across the vast landscape of South Dakota. Looking at the wx app again and dang if the storm over the Blackhills hadn’t reformed and even bigger and badder. Off we raced. We arrived to photograph what you see above. A few minutes after this exposure all hell broke loose and we were dashing for cover. Huge hail and two inches of rain pounded us for the next hour. The lighting lasted for over four hours and at times was so bright and so constant, the automatic headlights on the car turned off! It was the most magnificent storm I’d seen in a mighty long time. And our week isn’t over!!!

Photographing it was pretty much a darn slam dunk. Above was simple rig as noted in the caption with the Miops doing all the work. It was a simple as the Miops triggered the shutter, 1sec, f8 ISO 200 14mm shot. The bottom image was the old fashion, open up the shutter and let the lightning take its own photo. It’s exposure is 5sec, f8, ISO 100 at 70mm. I just love clouds and when they are shaking the earth, it’s just heaven with summer thunder!

Blackhills Thunder captured by Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8

Note: I use a Smal Rig ballhead to keep the Miops not only pointed at the clouds I want to focus on, but to prevent the lens shade from blocking the signal to the Miops.

Spring Kids are Great!

Bison Cow & Calf captured by Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8 / Z1.4x

One critter that knows how to celebrate spring are Bison. Heck … the kids are bright burnt red when they are born! Or, are they orange? Whatever color, they are a ball of energy bouncing across the grasslands amongst their big parents with springs in their legs. They run through the herd, bounce off other adults, bounce off each other and then as fast as they run, they stop, lay down and catch their breath, just to bounce back up and start it all over again. They start this celebration of life not too long after birth and keep it up for a month or so and then they settle down into rhythm of the herd that slowly moves across the landscape.

I’ve returned to one of my all time favorite places, South Dakota Blackhills to spend time amongst its brilliant spring green hills with all its critters. The Bison have just dropped their calves and being amongst them during the spring is simply brilliant! Photographing them actually is as simple and relaxing of any critter photography. I’ve rented a small SUV so I am as low to the ground I can be. I find Bison that are on a slope so the combination makes it appear in the photograph I’m laying on the ground with them though I’m in the safety of my vehicle. I’m up with the sun catching the herd as they wake and start feeding. I prefer them with backlit and use the reflection of the vehicle acting as a big fill. That’s what I’ve got going here. Shooting with the Z 6II / Z70-200f2.8 / Z1.4x, the Animal Eye-detection I don’t even get out of the truck, I just look for the cuteness close by and go click. I’ve shot this pose a few times in the past and love it cause of the size comparison of kid and mom. All I can say is, spring kids are great!

Bear With Me

Kodiak Brown Bear captured by D6 / 180-400VR

I’m a history nut and when it came to California critter history, I’m possessed! It started in the early ’80s, a burning desire to understand how the Grizzly Bear fit into the wildlife landscape of days gone by. Since they were extinct I had to search elsewhere starting in Yellowstone and then Alaska. Twenty years later, I had nearly 80,000 images of Alaska Griz in the files spending hundreds of hours with them in the field mostly watching, often photographing. It was in early 2000 I made my first journey to visit the giants, the Kodiak Brown Bears. Flying in a Wigeon, we flew into Frazier Lake for an intimate day with bruins. It was just the four of us, Sharon, Brent, Jake & I and the bears, it was magical leaving an impression that is hard to express in words. I’ve not been back with them since and it left a void that one can only understand if they spent time amongst the bears. I’m not under some grand illusion that they accepted my presence, more tolerated but none the less, they go about their lives as I watch, love and photograph them. That void was filled in the most grand and brilliant way last week that I want to share with you over many posts.

I’ll start with this six year old female that was most definitely the most endearing of them all. The photo will bring the most obvious of questions to light. “How close was she?” Just 30 yards max when this photo was taken but she got closer. “Weren’t you scared, I would be?” Hell no! She approached on her terms at her speed and within her comfort range. And she wasn’t the only one to do so during our time at the river mouth but she was the one that kept tuggin at my heart strings. This gorgeous 700lbs bear (Kodiak are the biggest of them all) over and over again would endear herself by her actions so that you wanted to curl up with her and take a nap. If you have a dog, a puppy to be exact, many of her actions would remind you of that puppy as it would slide on its belly scooting up to get another bite of grass. Or as it starred at the Bald Eagles flying overhead in total bliss. The fact that a critter capable of running you over in a matter of seconds and never look back never enters your mind. All you feel is an amazement for this gentle giant, what I consider the world’s most perfect couch potato just feet in front of you, eating grass. Spending hours upon hours last week amongst the twenty-two individual bears rarely seen by any other human in a region rarely visited by man in this day and age brings with it an inner satisfaction I would love to share with you all. My void of the past years has been refilled, a passion reignited. There is so much more of the story to share, bear with me.

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