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.

Sense of Humor Time!

Green Jay captured by Z 6II / 800f5.6

This time of year when critters are in the process of making new babies is a golden opportunity to show your sense of humor through them! For example, birds when they mate have their own rituals to keep the pair bond like these Green Jays. The female “talks” to the male a lot, giving him encouragement to get food to telling him to drive off the competition. Some of this is done with calls from a distance and some, like above, is done up close and personal. Keying in on the biology is how you and your lens is in the right place at the right time. After that, it’s just your sense of humor that brings the color, light and gesture to the story.

Some species like Cardinals, the male will present the female a bite of food. The presenting of the food looks like a kiss for those not in the know. Small mammals double check the adult they are greeting is their mom or dad by coming up real close to sniff which also looks like a kiss. The examples are almost endless and the only key to getting the shot is thinking biologically, reacting photographically and then laughing at the story your inside voice makes up!

Love Grousing About!

Sharp-tailed Grouse captured by D6 / 180-400VR

There was no star light to speak of when I approached the blind. The ground fog that was blanketing the valleys blocked their view and the glow way off to the east suggested the fog extended for some distance. Got in our plywood box, our blind for the morning, I did my usual and just sat, watched and most importantly, listened. We’re perched on the top of a knoll, quite the opposite of the Greater Prairie Chicken lek of the days before (they are more a bowl shape). I saw just on the other side of the knoll a known shape and when it loped off to the south, I knew it was a coyote. I wondered if our morning shoot just went out the door. A few minutes later when the light levels had come up a tad, I heard a flap and a crash to my right and knew, the grouse were coming!

The Sharp-tailed Grouse share the same grass prairie habit as the prairie chickens but not the same leks. They do not share the same “dance” or sparring as the chickens. As my friend said, “they sound like jack hammers” as they stomp rapidly on the ground performing for a hopeful mate. They spin, do stare offs and on rare occasion are combative. One of the big challenges is there is more grasses on their leks so getting a clear shot can be frustrating. The entire lek freezes, on what que I do not know. Then they unfreeze, again on a que I cannot figure and when they unfreeze, they flare out their wings, stick their heads down, call and drum as they make circles in the dirt. Then, they freeze again only to start it all over again.

When a female appears, they go nuts doing all of this with more frenzy. And there you are with a lens, camera and finger itching to blast away to make the shot. You start shooting this biology before the sun even kisses the knoll. Then the light levels come up and with it the gorgeous light. This morning, with the rising light levels and temps, the ground fog slowly rose. Just as the fog started to float across the lek, the sun began to just kiss it. I was in frantic mode as I looked for a grouse who might dance in an open spot for my lens, kissed by this light with the mystery of the fog. Luck have it, one just did and the D6 went flying! I love Sharped-tailed Grouse more than chickens for so many reasons and after this morning, even more so. I simply can’t wait again cause I just love grousing about!

Up with The Chickens

Greater Prairie Chicken captured by D6 / 800f5.6

Only the light from the stars streaks through the window when the alarm rings. By the time I slip into the blind, you can make out the faint outline of the NE Sandhills off in the distance. Everything is covered with frost, the snow the day before loaded that air with moisture and the sixteen degrees stuck it to every surface. You get tucked into the blind which is pitch black, just the tripod is standing at this point. It’s about then you hear the flutter of wings beats. A heartbeat after they stop, the doooo doot doooo doot floats into the blind. The Greater Prairie Chickens have come to the lek, an annual event each spring that brings me to this gorgeous country.

I have more then forty thousands images of these charismatic birds, each one unique as each individual bird is a character. I tend to find the one that just can’t say no to contesting any male and who loves rejection from every female that comes by. That’s him, on the right just after he’s picked his latest sparring partner. There are lots of aspects of their biology I love to photograph. The sparring I find the most challenging and the one photo I have a preconceived idea of what I want before I even get into the blind. The first criteria is the background, I don’t want much at all. Next, I want just a touch of the rising sun. I want the slightest influence of it which lights up their airsacks and comb but not the rest of them. I want one male in the air and one on the ground, both with intense looks down the bill at each other. Lastly, I want the two males facing off parallel to the film plane so I can get them both in focus. In years past I have had this and that piece of the puzzle teasing me that it’s available but never had them all in one click. Thousands upon thousands of attempts, but not that one image. I have no illusion that I would get the shot but I keep looking for it as I photograph the greatest show in the animal kingdom.

Then the elements started to line up this day in the blind, the background, the light, two males but I know better than to get excited, get my hopes up. I just watch through the viewfinder, one finger on the back button focus, the other on the shutter release. The two males lay on the ground, making their call at each other, just lying there. Then …. EXPLOSION! In a heartbeat they are in the air sparring and then back on the ground. The D6 has cranked off seven frames. I keep on shooting figuring I missed the shot again. That’s OK, I saw it, I know it’s still possible and because of the great folks at The Switzer Ranch, they will be here for years to come.

Then I get back into the lodge, ingest my images and start to go through them. That’s when my heart stopped for a moment. The image above appeared and I started to admire my luck. Is it “the” shot I’ve dreamed of all these years? I keep asking that myself because dreams often have no real foundation. I really love it, if it’s not it, it’s darn close. I guess I will never really know until I am fortunate to take the next one with my list of elements I love more. That’s what keeps me getting up with the chickens!


Nesting Has Begun

White-breasted Nuthatch captured by Z 6II / 500PF

Sharon and I are one what seems like an all station alert watching the bird activity at The Ranch. That’s because this is our first full spring here and we don’t know what to expect, from whom to when. We’re now up to 59 species of birds at The Ranch with the new addition just yesterday of Western Bluebirds. With that surprise and the Red-breasted Nuthatches that nested in one of our boxes we’d just hung last year, we’re open to any surprise. Well, I thought we were when we saw a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches start to get busy around a nest box I can see from my great room chair. Darn if they weren’t taking nesting material into the box, and at the beginning of April!

I instantly got out Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds and Birds of Montana and did some quick reading. I learned that indeed, it was an early start for nesting and that they don’t play nicely with other birds around their nesting cavity. They do use boxes and the female does all the incubation with the male bringing the female food while on the eggs. They tend to be site tenacious which tells me that with do precaution I could photograph them. All I wanted was some photos of their bringing in nesting material for now.

White-breasted Nuthatch captured by D6 / 180-400VR

Having photographed them on feeders, I had a good idea of the distance I would need to be from the box for the image I wanted (about 7 feet). I grabbed the 500PF I have on loan from a friend, connected it to the Z 6II (via the FTZ) with the WR-R10 attached (remote control) and waited until both adults had come and gone from the box before approaching. With them gone, I scooted in, setting up the gear, focused on the center of the nest box hole, took a couple of test shots and walked away. I grabbed a chair, cup of joe, my bins and watched and shot. After a couple of hours, I repeated the process in reverse bringing in the gear.

Now the calendar is ticking until the eggs hatch and as life would have it, I should be home when the first egg hatches. I’ll wait 4-5 days after hatching and then go back to photographing the activity. While we’ve seen other birds courting, this is the first actual nesting behavior and it’s so early. It’s going to be a fun spring at The Ranch as the nesting has begun!

Getting Closer – Biology Working

Pileated Woodpecker captured by D6 / 180-400VR

The size of a crow, you’d think they are easy to spot. At least, that’s what we thought but we’ve found the Pileated Woodpeckers here at The Ranch to be pretty darn crafty. We’d not actually seen one since the first confirmed siting which I was able to photograph on 02 Feb. We had seen signs of them but that’s not a real confirmation with so much woodpecker activity here at The Ranch. We have a gang of Red-shafted Flickers at The Ranch and their call is a near copy of the Pileated’s though their drilling noise is quite different. So using our ears to determine they are here hasn’t been an aid. We have four suet feeders placed about which are always busy but they don’t seem to be bringing the Pileated’s in, at least enough for our pleasure. So off to the books I went.


I found pretty quickly that Pileateds prefer feeders with tail rests. I assume that being the size of a crow, hanging from a suet cage alone is either not possible for feeding or just not comfortable so they don’t use them. You can buy commercial tail-rest suet feeders but they are kinda pricey. I decided to go home built. I grabbed the chainsaw-on-a-stick, cut off a piece of limb, attached a $3 suet cage on it and hung it from a tree. In less than 36 hours we saw a Pileated feeding on the new feeder! We had seen sign before that of them eating from it, but didn’t actually see them on the feeder. Ok, so we got a Pileated feeding one time from the new feeder. That doesn’t make it successful.

The next day I’m sitting at my desk and see this dark form out of the corner of my eye. I turn to see the Pileated on the tree out the window. I no sooner than told Sharon and it flew around the corner of the home. We raced through the house in the direction it flew and saw it on the new feeder feeding. Two days in a row, now we were feeling a little more confident of the new feeder is working. As it turned out, we were fortunate being able watch the Pileated work the feeder for quite a while. Then we were treated for another twenty minutes watching the Pileated check out a number of different trees on The Ranch not truly foraging, not really sure what it was doing. In all, we had over forty minutes observing a great bird that was one of the three target species I wanted to enjoy at The Ranch. We’re getting closer – biology is working.

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