About as silly as a fish with a bicycle

3-shot HDR, ISO 100, 166mm, f/18, various shutter speeds


Wonder what they think of all these tires littering up their lake?  Sure, humans put the tires there to give fish a place to nest and spawn, but that’s really for the benefit of the fishermen, not the lake’s residents.  For some locations it appears to be effective, but not everywhere.  I’m just fascinated with what lies beneath the lake surface, all the textures hidden under the water.  Biology tells us the benefit of edges in nature, how diversity increases at the junction of ecosystems.  I think most animals just don’t like standing (or floating) out in the open and look for anything to sidle up against.  Sort of like junior high students at their first dance, lined up on the perimeter of the designated dance floor just milling around in small groups, individuals occasionally eyeing across the space to a potential partner while waiting for the urge to move toward them to overcome the security of the edge and group.  Do the fish treat these artificial textures in their neighborhood like this?  Or are these just mysterious items that appear in their three-dimensional space, like Mayan pyramids cropping up in the jungle to amaze the random European explorer?

Chasing Mountain Lions in the days of Film

My original career goal was that of naturalist, or at least what I thought of as a naturalist.  Visions of trekking around the world in search and investigation of rare and interesting animals somehow changed to realities radically different and much less “outdoors” but I never lost an interest in being a part of the naturalist world.  Then, in the early 1990’s, I learned of an organization that could make part of this dream come true.

Earthwatch Institute at the time provided volunteers to work with researchers around the world, giving individuals the opportunity to be a part of on-the-ground research in a variety of fields.  They were connecting people with projects all over the place, spanning a range that included biology, archeology, anthropology, sociology, history, geology, etc.  and on almost every continent.  You could just about find a place and subject to fulfill any dream your inner scientist might have.  I’ve recently checked their offerings and it feels like they’ve pulled back a bit in the number of expeditions and the range of projects, but it is still a great way to connect with ongoing work in a variety of fields.

For my first expedition I wanted to go somewhere and work in cold and snow.  Although we’d lived in a couple of places where winter was a real season I’d never spent time much further than the local woods so the chance to get out and do some real backwoods winter trekking was very appealing.  And there, in the catalog, was the perfect expedition – tracking mountain lions in Idaho.  In the winter.  I sent in my application and check and started building up a wardrobe suitable to the adventure.

Southeast Idaho ridges and plains

The principle investigator for the project had been researching the impact of habitat loss on mountain lion populations, attempting to define how small a habitat could become before the big cats would abandon it.  In that part of southeastern Idaho much of the geology is ranges of mountain ridges separated by plains, which over the years have become valuable farm land.  Mountain lions stake out a territory through which they hunt and raise their young, and they are very reluctant to cross open area where man has extended his reach.  As a result, islands of habitat were forming in the ridges and the objective of the research was to determine the minimum size required to support a population.

Looking south toward Utah

Mountain Lion territory

Farming in the mountains

The activity in the project was pretty simple:  radio collar mountain lions and then track their movements to learn their habitat range and whether they left an area permanently.  Simple in design, much more interesting in implementation.  There were two teams annually.  The summer team set up a base camp high on a ridge and used directional locators to track collared cats, gathering the significant amount of data to be used in the study.  In winter, the other team could track the cats, capture them, take measurements and place radio collars.  That was the part I wanted to be involved in – snow, winter, big cats.

That winter Idaho saw its driest season ever on record.

Whole mountain ranges were bare of snow and the lower plateaus and prairies were completely void of snow.  OK, I thought, so maybe the playing-in-snow part wasn’t that important after all.  Except, the devised way to track the cats was to find their kills in the woods and follow their tracks in the snow until we could get close enough to use dogs to tree them.  No snow, no tracks.

Fortunately for the volunteers, the principle scientist had other assignments we could work on.  Several cats had collars with batteries threatening to run out, which would leave the subsequent summer team with no way to collect data.  It also meant we could use the radio tracking equipment to find the cats needing battery replacement (each cat’s collar had a unique signal so the researchers knew which animals to look for) and then follow the same procedure the research protocol gave for collaring.


Looking for a cat signal

Edge of mountain lion territory

Turns out mountain lions are very hard to find, even when you have a beacon leading you to them.  Not only are they well camouflaged in the mountains but they are really very shy and stealthy.  Our success rate was not 100% although we did capture and re-collar 12 adults and 3 kittens.  I sat on the side of a valley one day and watched two parties triangulate on a cat that was on the opposite side of the valley, listening on the radio as the two parties converged only to find the cat had vanished.  In plain sight.  Very challenging.

Uphill, yet again

But the successes far exceeded the failures in excitement.  Once a cat was found the dogs put it up a tree (which was probably a mile or so away and usually uphill and sometimes through knee deep snow so I got my fill of that), a tranquilizer dart was fired into it and a brave graduate student climbed the tree to attached a rope to lower the cat carefully down.  On the ground the cat was weighed, measured for length, paw size, claw length and canine length, a blood sample taken, the ear tattoo checked for legibility and re-tattooed where needed, and the collar replaced.  With all that done we all got chances to take pictures and examine the cats more closely.  I found by putting my head against a big male’s chest that they purr just like a house cat, although at a much lower frequency!

Dogs job done - cat up a tree

Someone has to put the rope on!

Getting the rope just right

Big male ready for measurements

Renewing an ear tattoo

Getting a new collar fitted

Taking a blood sample

Measuring those canines

All this work took about half an hour then the researcher injected a stimulate and we all backed away many yards to watch the cat recover and stagger back into the woods.  After much congratulatory backslapping it was on to the next target.


Mountain lion papparazzi


The kittens were equally challenging since they were sometimes in trees and sometimes in the rocks.  Being much smaller they were certainly more manageable and definitely more cuddly.  Fortunate for us no mother cats came to investigate but we did always have one person on lookout for a brown blur heading our way.

One that almost got away

Not your typical house cat

Waking up grouchy

Just another lazy cat

All in all a true life experience, especially for my inner naturalist.  And a unique opportunity for a photographer-to-be.  I carried a Canon One-Shot film camera in a belt holster where it was easily accessed to make as many pictures as I could.  All the images were made on slide film and I scanned them for some digital post-processing.  Looking on them now I realize how documentary they are – even the landscapes are pretty static – but for the experience they suit my needs.  Even now, 20 years later, I can glance at one and pretty much remember what was going on when it was made and recall the thrills of being a part of work that took me to such a wonderful place and meet these remarkable animals.

Shapes of matter

Kodachrome 64, OM-1, 50mm lens, 1/125 sec., f/8

There are two drives within Dinosaur National Monument, one in Utah and one in Colorado.  The latter takes you across sweeping vistas of mountains, buttes and valleys, ending at the Yampa River canyon.  It is a high altitude desert, and looks like the back lot of any studio that made Western movies in the 1950’s.  In the image above I kept expecting to see a wagon train slowly move across my view, kicking up little clouds of dust to mirror the ones in the sky.

This is one of a series of patience images.  Seeing the rolling hills in the distance and the clouds moving slowing across the sky and the position of the sun, I realized there would be shadows playing across the hills.  So I got out, leaned across the hood of the car and watched until I liked what I saw.  Then I pushed the shutter release.

I wanted to capture clouds defining the shape of the hills, helping the eye realize the 3D nature of a distant object under pretty harsh light.  I wanted the viewer to get a sense of the undulating nature of the terrain, mimicked in the billowing shape of the clouds.  I also wanted to convey a sense of the grand landscape, a perception of a distant scene stretching across the field of view.

Mostly I wanted a simple picture of the American West, an iconic image of land and sky filled with the objects we expect to see there.  All that’s missing are a few cacti, don’t you think?

Life moves on

Olympus E-3, 14-54mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4, ISO100

Seasonal changes are in motion.  The temperature and humidity still proclaim summer but life knows it’s time to move on, that autumn is nearing and the need to gird up for the trip south to avoid winter is pressing hard.  Don’t believe it?  All you have to do is stand still and watch what’s going on around you.

For the trip ahead birds and butterflies are packing on the calories as if there are not rest stops between here and their destination.  Bird feeders that have been devoid of business are suddenly packed with customers, vacuuming up seed like runners at the end of a marathon.  Butterflies seek flowers non-stop, briefly checking for nectar and then moving to the next possible fountain of energy.  Some are oblivious to what’s going on around and some are nervous about every shadow.

It’s a good time to get out and set up photography shop in a field or prairie or meadow – something is bound to wander by.  Mirroring the haste of the flying creatures good photographers need to stop now and make their images.  What’s flying through today may be gone tomorrow, leaving the long winter months with no color and little life to intrude the viewfinder.

Don’t fence me in

I’m constantly amazed at the human attraction for edges, the meeting place between two different environments.  To see this in action just watch a crowd in a big room (people migrate toward the walls or tables) or look at housing near a large body of water (housing density falls quickly as you move away from the shore).  Or simply how people behave when confronted with a big, open space.  No place to hide?

Or is it that big open spaces just aren’t that interesting, that we need contrasting elements in our field of vision or else we lose attention in our surroundings.  Do we need constant stimulation that badly?

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.  Eastern art seems to utilize “negative space” more as an active element than an afterthought.  The importance of emptiness as a portal for the viewer to enter with their own interpretation, a way to leave room for the viewer that we rarely see in Western art.  Edge-less creations appear infrequently in Western galleries, where torture seems the preferred manner of treating media to result in an object for consideration.

Minimalist approaches to art, architecture, design and even fashion have been popular but rarely seem to result in a definitive change in people’s attitudes about open space.  Are we just clutter biased, the way the Victorians stuffed areas with bric-a-brac, reducing a room to a continuous challenge of edges?  Or is there a more subtle reason for our edge obsession?

Large expanses of our geography offer a single edge for consideration – the horizon.  Oceans, massive lakes, prairies, deserts – all stretch away from us to a unknown destination, leaving their trailing edge right in front of our eyes to beckon us forward, to come see what’s on the other side.

Change happens

It’s amazing how fast spring erupts or how quickly life responds to optimal conditions.  Around here sometimes it feels like you can actually hear the grass grow or watch the corn get taller.  This rush to grow got me to thinking of how to give people a sense of change.

A local park where I find lots of images is mostly a tall grass prairie around a flood control lake.  Early this year the park management performed a controlled burn of different sections in the park, fire being an essential tool in the management of prairie.  It is used to eradicate non-native species and create space for the grasses and other plants to get their seeds to the ground and have sunlight reach them.  When I saw the burning late one afternoon I realized the opportunity to capture images of change.

What surprised me is how fast that change took place.  I was expecting several weeks of gradual transformation from blackened ground to green grasses so I scheduled a shoot each Monday afternoon when the sun was getting low.  Turns out I should have scheduled a shoot every day!  Returning the week after my “baseline” photos I found the areas that were previously charred ash converted into a bright green field.  By the third week it required getting down and separating the grass to see any sign of burnt ground.  Simply amazing.  I called off the project because after the fourth week the field was just a sea of grass, all getting taller at pretty much the same rate.

Obviously next spring, or after the next burn, I’ll need to set up a time-lapse system to catch these shoots of new life reclaiming their rightful place in the plains.

Life imitates art

I’m sure most people have seen the cartoon – hanging in a cubicle, next to a cash register, posted on a bulletin board.  It’s iconic.  A heron has a frog in his mouth, the frog reaching out with both front arms to strangle the heron.  The tagline is usually “Don’t ever give up!”, emphasizing we all can control our destiny right till the last moment.

Funny, engaging, makes you think.  Well, it doesn’t seem to actually happen that way.

I stood in a blind and watched this heron catch and eat two frogs, each one what I would consider a pretty good sized amphibian.  Not one for table manners, the heron gets a good grip on the frog, tilts its head back and swallows it whole.  You can watch the frog make its way down the heron’s throat, like a python swallowing a pig.  What I find amazing is how the heron is able to swallow the frog – whole – and still keep hunting for more.  I mean, can you imagine having a live frog in your stomach!?!  Talk about indigestion.

Bird photography usually disappoints me because the subject is generally too far away, moving too much and in poor lighting.  Fortunately today it was bright sun, little wind and the herons stand really still while hunting.  With my long lens I was able to get images sharp enough to please me, something that rarely happens in my bird photos.

It’s good to see the herons are back.  Heron Haven is a small wetland I’ve been visiting frequently as a member of the newly formed camera club there.  We’re trying to document all the wildlife and plant life in the haven with pictures that can be used by visitors and in education programs for kids.  It’s a way I’m dipping my toe into local conservation efforts, meeting people in the area who are also involved and researching the issues I feel would benefit from photography.

Limited spaces

Imagine your life circumscribed by a room of 300 square feet, just over 15 feet per side.   All aspects of your life – cooking, eating, sleeping, etc. – carried out in a space smaller than a McMansion’s bedroom.  Not a prison, but a homesteader’s cabin, surrounded by farmland and endless prairie.  A startling contrast in living where passing through a threshold takes you from the wide open spaces to a small box containing all your belongings.

We read about one-room schoolhouses and hear stories from our grandparents about several kids all in one bedroom, but do we really grasp the radical difference in lifestyles of a hundred or so years ago versus today?  Agrarian society values the outside, the farmland, over the inside, which is simply a place to rest from efforts before resuming the next day.  Yet our modern world is literally built around inside spaces that we hold with greater value than the outdoors.  I sense for many people the outdoors is something to be endured pending a safe return to the security of their inside world.

How would you live your life differently if the outside of your world was more important to you than the inside?  Oil washing up on the Gulf beaches must have residents there wondering – how is the value of my inside world affected by what’s going on outside?  Will it matter the quality of space I’ve created in my house if all around it is dead?  Much of what we hear called environmental disasters seems to elicit a strong public response only when our inside world is threatened.  Doesn’t that seem odd?  Life “in here” began “out there” but we behave as if there’s no connection, no value to being connected.  As an outdoor photographer I feel my life on the inside is enhanced by the outside and I want to reduce barriers between the two as much as possible and, through my images, stimulate my viewers to be a part of outside as they chose.

A photography colleague of mine works along the same lines, although he’s in an environment different from the Great Plains.  Jimmy White takes his camera into the waters around the Caribbean to connect viewers with life there.  He has a post about the oil spill’s impact on Florida along with some of his photos describing what’s at stake.  Connect with his voice and use the power of our social network to realign your value for the outside.