Earth Day(s) Walk in Dominguez Canyon Wilderness

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Sunrise on Big Dominguez Creek, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, Colorado

Whatcha gonna do on the planet today? New Riders Of The Purple Sage

We found ourselves kicking off the backpacking season during Earth Day week, a three day trip that felt just right. Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area was just designated wilderness in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and is within the larger Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. We accessed at the Bridgeport trailhead, south of Grand Junction and a few miles of gravel road west of Highway 50. “Untrammeled” is written into the Wilderness Act of 1964: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The idea of wilderness is one of the mast brilliant things our country has ever done, yet Dominguez Canyon is largely defined by its importance to man. Human history is quite literally written in stone. From the BLM brochure: “Red-rock canyons and bluffs hold geological and paleontological resources spanning 600 million years. Rock art on the canyon walls and archaeological sites on the mesas are evidence of thousands of years of Native American use, including hunting and travel from the Gunnison River Valley to the Uncompahgre Plateau. The wilderness also contains historic features left by the early miners and settlers who lived and worked throughout the area.” Today, its archeological treasures are protected, along with the resident desert bighorn sheep herd, collared lizards, mountain lion, black bear, mule deer – too many flora and fauna species to list here. As you ascend along Big Dominguez Creek pouring cold water off of the Uncompahgre Plateau, it’s easy to see why humans and wildlife have thrived here for thousands of years. It’s a magical place to explore and revel in the tranquility, to soak in the idea of wilderness. Continue reading “Earth Day(s) Walk in Dominguez Canyon Wilderness”

Camera Shy

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Camera Shy – a Greater Sage-grouse male displays on the wrong side of my camera. Sublette County, WY

A lighter side outtake from my Sage Spirit project: In 2010, I set up a DSLR camera with a Pocket Wizard remote trigger and wrapped the whole thing in sagebrush and camo on a lek (mating ground) south of Pinedale, Wyoming. The Sage-grouse were very active that morning and this particular male didn’t mind the camera, he was just on the wrong side. The idea here was to make a wide angle view of grouse on a lek, and although it didn’t work out…yet, there will be another try with a different setup next season. Greater Sage-grouse are a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, with a listing decision scheduled for September 30, 2015. With all the misinformation and ill-informed media attempts to divide, it would be easy to overlook great collaborative work happening in the West – folks from all sides are coming together to conserve habitat for Greater Sage-grouse and the suite of species who rely on unbroken sagebrush landscapes to thrive. It’s a central part of our story. In partnership with Audubon Rockies, The Wilderness Society, and The Sierra Club, Sage Spirit, The American West At A Crossroads will be published by Braided River in July of this year.

Prairie Dance

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Greater prairie-chicken male booming during mating display. Switzer Ranch, with Calamus Outfitters. Nebraska Sandhills.

Foot drumming, flutter jumps, fights between males punctuated by sky walking leaps, and booming displays with puffed out bright orange air sacs are just a few of the antics of Greater prairie-chickens on a grassland lek in spring. I’d been on a Greater prairie-chicken (actually a grouse species) lek nine years ago when I was working on Prairie Thunder (book), so I was ready for the otherworldly blowing across the top of a pop bottle sound males make when they arrive on the lek in near darkness. Yet, no matter how many early mornings you spend in a blind for lekking birds, it’s always a rare and special experience to be witness to such an awe-inspiring display. With friends and clients Buddy and Mitch Jacoby – who love to freeze in a blind as much as me even though they’re from the south – we were guests of Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer Ranch in the eastern Nebraska Sandhills. The Switzers run cattle near Calamus Reservoir and Gracie Creek in this magical tallgrass prairie about two hours north of Kearney, Nebraska; known as the sandhill crane capitol of the world. Greater prairie-chickens and sharptail grouse are a big draw for Calamus Outfitters, the hospitality side of the business that caters to photographers, birdwatchers, turkey and deer hunters, and folks that float the Calamus River in stock tanks on hot summer days. The Switzers have a great story and are doing important work to conserve the Sandhills, vulnerable to crop conversion when the price of corn rises, a nearby transmission line, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Prairie-chickens need unbroken prairie to thrive, and the Nebraska Sandhills are the Greater prairie-chicken’s last remaining stronghold. These Sandhills are good fuel for the human spirit as well. A must watch video about the Switzer Ranch is at the bottom of this post. Continue reading “Prairie Dance”

Shelter From The Storm

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Storm Protection – A great horned owl adult – most likely mom – shelters owlets from an oncoming spring snowstorm. Jefferson County, CO

Returning to the nearby owl nest, I was hopeful that I’d see one of the adults on the nest with her young. A storm was coming with three inches of snow predicted and I wondered how this open broken cottonwood nest would fare. Of course they’d made it this far and mom could tough it out. With the sun setting on a pewter grey evening, winds picking up, and clouds rolling in over the Front Range, mom had her three young tucked underwing; two of them visible in this frame. I decided to go back the next morning to check on them.

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Great horned owl adult in spring snow. Jefferson County, CO

At first light, mom was off the nest in a thick cottonwood gallery forest nearby. Two of the owlets had their fluffy heads barely poking up. Everyone was fine, and that day one of the owlets fledged from the nest to a roost in a pine across the irrigation canal, soon to be hunting skunks and rabbits.

Great Horned Owlets

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Great horned owlets in a broken cottonwood nest. Arvada, CO

Great horned owls are early breeders and the young are early to fledge in spring – these owlets are within a week or two of fledging. The nest is in a broken cottonwood trunk, situated in a neighborhood along the busy Ralston Creek bike path. The cottonwood gallery forest supports a wide range of wildlife – while viewing the owlets a kingfisher loudly made his presence known as he darted around the riparian area. My young friend Austin located the nest by finding owl pellets, some with tiny rodent limbs. Owls eat their prey whole and regurgitate the pellets with the animal parts they can’t digest. There’s a magnificent world of wildlife to explore in our backyard – in this case look down, then look up.

“Hunting A New Kind Of Fugitive In The West”

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.

Happy Birthday Yellowstone NP!

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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!

High Desert Getaway

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Turret Arch Through North Window : Prints Available

Sunrise paints North Window and Turret Arch in gold one spring morning. Arches National Park in home to the highest concentration of natural arches in the world.

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: Continue reading “High Desert Getaway”

Frosty Meadowlark

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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?

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