Hunting A New Kind Of Fugitive In The West Video <- click on the link to the left <-
I was contacted by the Bill Lane Center For The American West at Stanford University a few years ago, and we worked together on this video piece. I provided some of the still imagery, mostly aerial photos over the natural gas fields in the Upper Green River Basin. The “fugitive” is the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) leaking into the atmosphere from gas wells, nasty, toxic stuff. The video does a good job of addressing how clean this natural gas drilling process really is. I’ve often held the opinion that we need to separate the issues associated with the fracking process and habitat fragmentation – human health and ecosystem health. Maybe it’s all rolled into one big toxic mess.
Grizzly Bear Daydream, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yesterday was Yellowstone’s 143rd anniversary as a national park. Yellowstone remains the crown jewel of our national park system, a global symbol for both conservation and foresight. Yellowstone is one of the largest intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth – a fully functioning ecosystem. To me, it symbolizes our better selves and what’s possible when we act on our dreams. Happy Birthday Yellowstone!
With winter trying to make up its mind, we headed for the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Winter did make up its mind, as we skirted a pileup in a whiteout near Frisco, Colorado and got snowed on in Moab, Utah. Who cares? We got out and saw some country on foot in the desert and skis on the Grand Mesa, a 10,000 foot plateau that rises from the surrounding desert landscape. What a hoot! A few images follow: (more…)
A frosty western meadowlark on a February morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO
This year’s backyard bird count has begun and is the inspiration for this meadowlark image pulled from the vault and dusted off. In my first winter of photographing at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, I was surprised to see small flocks of western meadowlarks picking for seeds in a world covered with hoar frost. It was about -10F when I made this image, which doesn’t phase meadowlarks – as long as they can forage. Lately, the number of wintering bald eagles has dropped as they’ve begun their northern migration, their void filled by sweet melodies of meadowlarks. It’s been an unusually warm winter (who knows what spring has in store?) but meadowlarks would be returning to Colorado’s shortgrass prairie anyway – they’re on schedule. Back then I was shooting with a Nikon F5 and absolutely in love with that film camera. You could pound nails with one of those things and I even told Marla that I thought I was all set for gear – who could’ve predicted the digital revolution of the last decade?
Prairie merlin hunting from a brush perch on a chilly winter morning. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO
These small falcons look like tiny missiles while hunting. Preying mostly on small birds, the powerful merlin is fast and muscular; able to turn at very high speed in mid-air. The prairie (Richardson’s) merlin is 10″ tall and weighs about 6 ounces.
An adult bald eagle returns to roost, one winter evening. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.
There are sixty or so bald eagles roosting at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR this winter, right on the edge of Denver. The eagles come back every year, using the tall cottonwoods for hunting perches to pick off a prairie dog or cottontail rabbit, and sometimes feast on winter-killed white-tail and mule deer. The eagles that return from Canada and Alaska join a resident pair that have a gigantic nest in a cottonwood gallery forest located in the middle of the refuge. Bald eagles are roost communally, and you can see them leaving the roost in blue-black predawn light, threes or four at a time traveling low across the refuge. They return in the evening, generally one at a time and over the course of an hour or two, until a few cottonwoods at the roost site are full of bald eagles, like dark ornaments. They chatter and fight for a favorite branch to spend the long winter night. Some of the eagles stay on the refuge to hunt, using cottonwood trees and decommissioned telephone poles. Others leave, possibly to fish along the South Platte River. Photographically, it’s somewhat of a mystery how to best position myself to make images of the eagles leaving and returning. I do my best not to bump them off of loafing perches – they spend up to 90% of their day loafing, or resting to conserve energy in winter. But it’s maddening to see them flying all over the refuge, just high enough or or too distant to photograph. For this image, I stood sentinel in a forest of cottonwoods where I’ve seen eagles graze the tops on their evening flight to roost. This particular eagle flew right over my head, a bit higher than I would have liked, but still thrilling. If you remember the days of DDT and how rare and endangered bald eagles were in the ’60′s and ’70′s, it’s still a rush to see one up close.
Cover image of Sage Spirit – The American West At A Crossroads. The book and campaign will be launched with Braided River Publishing in July.
At last, the Sage Spirit book is in the homestretch and we’re planing our outreach campaign. Braided River Publishing is an amazing group of talented pros and we’re working hard to get this book published and share the story. None other than David Allen Sibley, Todd Wilkinson, Rick Bass, and biologist Pat Magee have made major contributions to the text. Always with something to say, I’ve written a fair amount too. We’ve included profiles of some important Westerners and can’t wait to share the story – Braided River and our major partners Audubon, The Wilderness Society, and the Sierra Club all have ambitious plans for the campaign. Together we can conserve and pass on a sustainable American West. Stay tuned!
Join renowned photographer Michael Forsberg, naturalist John Rawinsky, 27,000 sandhill cranes, and me at historic Zapata Ranch on March 8 for our fifth annual sandhill crane photo workshop. The crane photo opportunities are amazing, but we do a lot more in this wildlife, historic ranch, Great Sand Dunes, landscape photo workshop. And Zapata Ranch is such a great venue with gourmet dining – situated right next to the Great Sand Dunes. If you want to take your photography skills to the next level, this is a great place to do it. We have a few spots left, please join us.
As I looked back on 2014, I kept returning to this one image. Of thousands of photographs made last year, there is prescience in this one photo, this single male Greater Sage-grouse. In January, Sage-grouse tuck under sagebrush for protection from winter storms and eat the grey-green leaves to sustain them through a harsh winter. And in just over two months, they will return to mating grounds, called leks to perform their spectacular mating ritual. Males with spiky tail feathers fanned and chests puffed up, seem to double in size while displaying for females, making popping sounds over and over from their bright yellow air sacs. Just a few dominant males will do the actual mating, and the spectacle will last into May. I’ve documented the cycle here before, how Sage-grouse spend their entire lives in sagebrush, and why protecting sagebrush habitat on a landscape scale is critical to the health and sustainability of natural systems in the American West. In spite of the toxic Washington political atmosphere, bureaucrats monkey wrenching the Endangered Species Act, and widespread cynicism; I remain optimistic. There is real momentum towards collaborative change in how these lands and wildlife are viewed and managed in the West and there is no turning back. When Sage-grouse return to their leks in spring, as they have for 25 million years, sandhill cranes, mule deer, pronghorn, migratory songbirds, and hundreds of others species will also be stirring and migrating. I’m mindful that humans aren’t separate from these natural processes, that ecosystem health is our life support and wild inspiration nourishes the human spirit. Each time I return to this image of a single Greater Sage-grouse, I return to that tranquil moment in a cold nylon hunting blind and smile because this bird embodies hope, inspiration, resilience, and what is right in the West.
Happy New Year.
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