Raven Nest, Yellowstone National Park

Young ravens scream for more food.

“Feed me”!

I was driving through the Golden Gate area of Yellowstone on May 24, 2015, scanning the cliffs for mountain goats as I drove.  I didn’t see any goats (as is usually the case), but did see this nest of ravens.  The babies were small (and with few feathers), but I made a mental note to check on them every time I drove through there for the rest of my stay in Yellowstone.   The last time I saw them was June 14, a few days before I headed home.  This photo was taken June 3.  Believe it or not, there are six of these little ravens in the nest.  These three just happened to be the most hungry when I shot this photo.  Note the blue eyes common to young animals.

I don’t enter photo contests very often because it is hard to win when there are thousands of entries, at least in the most prestigious ones, and judging is, understandably, very subjective.  However, I decided to enter the 2015 Yellowstone Forever Photo Contest put on by Nature’s Best Photography Magazine and the Yellowstone Park Foundation because Yellowstone is my favorite place and I have lots of images from there.  There were 11,000 entries from 31 countries.  This raven nest photo was awarded an Honorable Mention as was the black bear spring cub below.

Black Bear Spring Cub, Yellowstone

“Hey, I’m pretty big when I stand up”!

Two friends, Max Waugh and Daniel Dietrich, were also awarded honorable mentions.  In fact, Max won seven honorable mentions!  Click here for a list of all the winners and honorable mentions.

There are several reasons I tend to not enter many nature photo contests.  The first reason is that entering takes a lot of time and the odds of winning are very low because there are thousands of entries.  The odds are also low because of the subjective nature of judging. Art can’t be judged objectively.

Another reason is that some (but not the Nature’s Best contest) are designed to be rights grabs.  By that I mean they charge you to enter and they provide in the fine print that they can use your photos for any purpose with no compensation to you.  Think about that.  Instead of you getting paid by for the commercial  use of your photo, you in effect pay them to use it when you enter the contest!   What a great way for a magazine to get many years’ worth of photos without having to pay for them!  Read the fine print before you enter a contest!

Yet another reason I pass on most nature photography contests is because they strictly follow photojournalism standards.  In other words, the photo has to be a faithful representation of the original scene, except dust spotting, cropping, exposure changes and color balance are usually allowed because they were practiced in the film/darkroom days.  I have had to pass on entering many photos I like because a little twig is in the way of a clear facial shot.  I wish the dust spot exception were expanded a little to allow the removal of the twig that crosses an animal’s face.  Another solution would be to have an “artistic” category in contests where some manipulation is allowed.  After all, we are way past film and darkrooms.  Photoshop rules and I think nature photography contests need to recognize that.  If an artist were painting the same scene, you can be sure that little twig would never make it onto the canvas.

There are other concerns I have about nature photography contests, such as use of captive subjects and baiting, but I’ll save those topics for another day.

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Brown Bear Cub, Lake Clark National Park

Brown Bear Cub, Alaska

Looking Like a Pika!

When this two year old brown bear cub lifted its head and stared at me, it reminded me of a pika.  If you’ve ever seen a pika with its mouth full of grasses to be stored for the winter, you know what I mean.


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Guanaco, Patagonia

A guanaco stares at an exotic species.

A guanaco in Torres del Paine National Park

When my two friends and I went to Torres del Paine National Park to photograph pumas in May of 2016 the animal we saw most often was the guanaco.  The guanaco is a camel-like animal.  It stands 3 to 4 feet at the shoulder and weighs 200 to 300 lbs.  It is the primary large prey species of the puma in Patagonia.

Guanacos live in herds composed of females, their young, and a dominant male.  When they see a puma, they alert the herd to flee with a high-pitched, bleating call.  We were always listening for those calls and we heard them fairly frequently.

In writing this I paid a quick visit to Wikipedia.  I knew that in addition to guanacos there are similar camelid animals called called llamas, vicunas and alpacas in South America.  However, I was surprised to learn that guanacos are the wild parent of the domestic llama.  Likewise, the vicuna is the wild parent to the domesticated alpaca.  In that way they are like the wild caribou and its domesticated descendant, the reindeer.  At least I knew that relationship.

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Puma, Torres del Paine National Park

A puma, aka mountain lion, walks along a ridge.

Puma at Dusk, Chilean Patagonia

In May 2016 I went to Torres del Paine National Park with two friends in search of pumas or mountain lions as we know them.   The park is on the Chilean side of Patagonia.  We had great success in that we saw 18 different pumas in six days and photographed twelve of them, as I recall.  It involved a lot of hiking. This puma, however, showed itself when we were driving back to our hotel after sunset.

Pumas are protected in Chile, but they kill some sheep and the ranchers shoot them without regard to the law on ranches throughout Chile (and Argentina).  Fortunately, many more pumas are safe today thanks to the work of conservationist Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kris, who have bought millions of acres of ranches and converted those lands into national parks with the cooperation of Chile and adjoining Argentina.  Unfortunately, Doug died in a kayaking accident in December of 2015.  His wife, however, continues his legacy.  For more about Doug Tompkins, see this article.

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Mother Brown Bear, Lake Clark National Park

Brown bear sow, clams

Mama bear goes clamming.

My last two mornings at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge we had very low tides.  That brought the bears from the sedge grass meadows to the tidelands.  I was amazed to learn how well the bears find the clams.  They quickly smell them through little holes or vents in the sand that go from the clams up to the surface.  It’s also amazing how easily they use their big claws to pry open the shells.  They are very efficient at it.  Not a lot of meat from each clam, but I guess it adds up and is a welcome change from their mostly grass diets.

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Brown Bear Cubs, Alaska

Brown Bear Cubs, Lake Clark National Park

Are we fighting or dancing?

I was in Alaska recently.  I spent the first week of this month photographing brown bears in Lake Clark National Park.  If you’re interested in photographing brown bears, Lake Clark is a good place to go and Silver Salmon Creek Lodge (SSCL), where I stayed, offers excellent accommodations.  In fact, the lodge provides full services, including meals/lodging, flights to and from the lodge and a guide.  My guide, Jim, has an M.S. in Wildlife Biology and his thesis involved bears.  SSCL is already taking reservations for 2019, but I think it still has some openings for 2018.  The lodge is about 100 air miles southwest of Anchorage.    http://silversalmoncreek.com/

If you’re thinking of going, you may be wondering when is  the best time?  That depends. I’ve been there the first and last weeks of July.  My understanding of what happens there in June, July and August follows.

June.  June is mating season.  I understand most of the big boars leave the area by the end of June.  Also, the ones that remain into July have lost their luxuriant winter coats by the end of June, if not before.  What kinds of foregrounds and backgrounds will you have to photograph the bears in in June?  The bears will be feeding primarily on sedge grass, which I like to photograph them in.  They will also be feeding on razor clams when the tide is very low.  That’s another setting I like.

July.  It’s my understanding that the sows with cubs, at least spring cubs, don’t arrive until the big boars have left.  Boars kill and eat cubs.  So, if you want to photograph cubs, July is a good time.  When I was there this year most of the sows and all of the cubs still had their winter coats.  The foregrounds and backgrounds you will have will be the same as in June.

August.  In August, the silver salmon/coho start migrating up Silver Salmon Creek.  The bears will focus on eating as many of them as they can to fatten up for the long winter.  The big boars may return at this time, but you should check with the lodge on that (plus everything else I’ve said).  I don’t know what the color of the sedge grass is in August, but I’m guessing it would still be green.   I don’t think I need to describe the setting for the bears standing in the creek trying to catch salmon.  There are no falls, at least at the lower end of the creek, so don’t expect to photograph bears standing at the top of some falls with their mouths wide open catching jumping salmon, like McNeil Falls is famous for.  But you won’t have to fight with hordes of people either.

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Our Tree Swallow Nest Box

Hungry Tree Swallow Chick

Hungry Chick

Our tree swallow chicks fledged today, June 18, Father’s Day.  I knew they were getting close to leaving the nest box, so on Friday and Saturday I spent some time photographing the parents feeding the young.  I missed seeing them leave the nest.

The adults are very fast and agile flyers.  They are to winged insects what peregrine falcons are to most bird species.

I think of them just catching bugs in the air, but I realized in watching them with the telephoto lens that they get vegetation attached to them by apparently also flying into heavy vegetation. The male had a twig sticking out of the right side of his neck and the female had vegetation stuck in her tail.   Fortunately, the vegetation on each came off after a while.  I was worried that the male had impaled himself to some extent, but he finally came in on a feeding run without the stick.

We’ve had the nest box for 6 years and swallows have used it every year.  Unfortunately, all the chicks died last year.   I spoke with a song bird expert and was told that lots of tree swallow nests were unsuccessful last year because of the drought.   Apparently, the dry conditions caused a big drop in insect populations.

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