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.
Greater Sage-grouse in Pinedale Mesa Gas Field, Sublette County, Wyoming
There have been times when I’ve felt I’m looking at the last Sage-grouse in the world. The image above was one of those times. Fortunately, these bleak scenes are offset by moments of restrained joy when witnessing thirty or forty male Sage-grouse strutting for a few females. I’ve been reading all of the rhetoric I can get my hands on since the CR-Omnibus rider prohibiting the USFWS from pursuing any ESA activities related to Greater Sage-grouse listing while blocking the recent “Threatened” ESA designation for the 4,000 or so Gunnison Sage-grouse that remain. I’ve been doing this work long enough to understand that these decisions generally have nothing to do with the affected species, but this decision is stunning on a number of levels. The media seems content to trot out the tired energy vs: “environmentalists” angle to many stories, describing Sage-grouse as “brownish, chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Further complicating the chaotic picture, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper has sued the Obama administration over the Gunnison Sage-grouse “Threatened” status “because the Gunnison Basin population, which comprises the vast majority of the species’ individuals and occupied range, is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.” We can debate that – a drought year(s) or fire could wipe out many in a population that exists in one location – all the eggs are in one basket. But it doesn’t matter because the discussion has moved away from the welfare of two imperiled species – and how we can work together for their recovery – to bureaucrats pushing ideology over science. There’s no science in the CR-omnibus rider. If you’re new to the issue, you need to know this: Westerners are working together and finding common ground, and Sage-grouse are imperiled. Brian Rutledge VP and Policy Director for the National Audubon Society, who’s been leading Sage-grouse conservation efforts for over a decade said this: “The priority right now is to get science-based, state-level conservation plans in place that are effective enough to avoid a federal listing for the Greater Sage-Grouse in the first place. This rider will only complicate coordination between the BLM and statehouses and stems entirely from political maneuvering, ignoring scientific input and voices across the Mountain West that want strong plans in place.” Science-based. Avoid a listing. Work together. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her department will continue to act “with urgency” to preserve Western sagebrush landscapes and will reach “a decision” this fiscal year on whether to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, in spite of a legislative rider Congress passed as part of its 2015 spending bill that blocks formal listing actions.
I’m happy to hear Secretary Jewell speak of “Western sagebrush landscapes.” This question of sustainability is about so much more than “a brownish, chicken-sized bird that lives in sagebrush.”
A Greater Sage-grouse male displays on a Sublette County, Wyoming lek, or mating ground.
Congress has taken control of the endangered species process again. The new budget spending bill would block any federal funds going toward determining whether the Gunnison Sage-grouse or Greater Sage-grouse — two species of endemic, imperiled western birds — are eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So, the whole business of collaboration to save the species and avoid a listing gets turned on its head, grouse get thrown under the bus – for what? You can fill in the blank here____ bowing to Big Energy? Greed? Here’s the thing, and you know this if you’ve visited this blog, the sagebrush ecosystem is the iconic landscape of the American West. The Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse are the iconic species for the ecosystem, so they get the full attention of folks who like to write “chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Grouse are the bellwhether for the health of a massive ecosystem in collapse, and there are plenty of declining species worthy of habitat protection and a very close watch, each a canary in the coal mine. This budget process really stinks when politicians who claim they’re not scientists (when discussing climate change) usurp the role of dedicated professionals working hard for collaborative solutions. I’m not crying for a listing, just a process that affords species, every threatened species, a chance to recover. These are our lands, our wildlife. What will folks write when mule deer are endangered? “A brownish, medium-sized, hooved mammal that winters in sagebrush, except those that hang around the edges of western towns, browsing on lawns and gardens. Once plentiful, mulies were highly sought and coveted by hunters until their decline.”
Aerial view of the Roan Plateau surface on the wild side of the plateau, near Rifle, Colorado. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
The Roan Plateau is such an extraordinary place, a jewel in Colorado and until now, one the most imperiled places in the West. It’s a big part of the reason that I started working in the sagebrush ecosytem when I was trying to reckon with the impact of energy development sweeping the West at the start of the fracking boom. Today, the wild side of the Roan is no longer imperiled. A compromise announced yesterday ended a protracted dispute, a triangle of energy developers, conservationists, and the Department of the Interior. For this moment, we can forget about mistakes that led to gas leases sold for development on the surface of this unique and special landscape and just celebrate the spirit of collaboration and resulting good outcome that keeps the West a little wilder. The Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado, and others led the opposition to drilling the Roan, and many regular folks added their voices, reaching a pitch that couldn’t be ignored. It’s a great day for Colorado and the American West.