I had some exciting photo adventures in 2016, including an amazing trip to Lake Clark National Park, AK and a few vacations to Wyoming. I was focused this year on capturing unique behavior and trying to add to my portfolio of fur-bearers for a presentation that I gave in Jackson Hole this fall to benefit Wyoming Untrapped, which works very hard on trapping reform in Wyoming. I had many outings searching for my favorite subject, the great gray owl, and also had a memorable experience with Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Scroll down to see which images were my favorites, not just because of the images, but because of what the experience taking them meant to me.
"Leap of Faith"
A red fox at the top of its arc, leaping for prey buried deep underneath the frozen snowpack of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, WY.
"Mama's Little Shadow"
An Alaskan brown bear cub sticks close to its mother in the sedge grass flats of Lake Clark National Park, AK, as hungry male bears roam the forest edges looking for an opportunity.
An american marten snoozes on a pine branch in our backyard near Jackson Hole, WY. I had always looked for martens in and around Yellowstone over the past few winters but only ever found tracks. I could not believe that one was hunting in our yard for a week during this holiday season.
An adult great gray owl gets ready to swallow a meadow vole from a perch near Jackson Hole, WY.
A pair of western coyotes along the edge of the Madison River listen nervously to a disturbance far off in the trees, near a recent elk kill, in Yellowstone National Park, WY.
A brown bear spring cub boldly stands its ground near its mother during a break from clamming on the flats of Lake Clark National Park, AK.
"Blending Right In"
A great gray owlet, recently fledged from its nearby nest, chooses an ideal spot to roost during the most challenging time of its life, when it must learn to hunt for itself and avoid predators, in Grand Teton National Park, WY.
Red fox kit siblings take a break from playing outside of their den site to take in the early morning sunrise in my backyard, Morristown, NJ.
"Prepare to Launch"
As the autumn leaves fall on an October day in Grand Teton National Park, WY, an adult great gray owl hones in on the sounds of its prey and prepares to launch an attack.
"Eyes of Innocence"
A mountain lion kitten waits patiently for its mother to return to their den site in a dense willow thicket in Wyoming. Despite only taking a handful of quick shots with really low lighting conditions, this experience was by far the highlight of my photography career. Thanks to the generosity of my Facebook followers, I was able to sell copies of this photograph and in turn raised over $3,000 for a WY mountain lion research team to continue their efforts studying this magnificent animal.
This is a sequence that I took this past winter (February, 2016) of a female red fox mousing in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. It was a cold and overcast morning and it was the third day of my trip. We hadn't seen a fox until we climbed a hill and looked up ahead of us in the road. This vixen was hunting right next to the road. We drove up near her and waited. She left and walked out into an open field. I watched her and waited until she started listening closely to the ground in front of her. This is what happened next:
1. She tilted her head a few times trying to pinpoint her prey. A red fox has incredible hearing.
2. Once she knew something was there, she focused on the exact spot and got ready to jump.
3. She was now ready to spring. I was braced on a beanbag in a car window and I moved the lens up a bit here from the last shot. I don't remember doing it but I was now worried that I didn't have enough room at the top of the frame if she jumped.
4. She uses her forelegs to push up and then her back legs give her the spring. She is still looking at her target.
5. I don't know if I ever would have had enough shutter speed in this low light to freeze this frame perfectly. It shows how focused she still is on where the prey is.
6. There is a subtle shadow of where she used to be. She's on her way to the top of the leap, still looking at where she should land.
7. This is the highest point of the leap. I love the shape of her body and how determined she is.
8. She is on her way down now and is tucking her back legs in a bit.
9. Here she is becoming more streamlined and the forelegs are folding up tightly under her chin. There is no turning back now!
10. This is one of my favorites from the sequence. She is like an arrow, focused and straight dropping out of the sky to pin a vole under the snow below.
11. OK. Ouch. This has to hurt a little bit, especially if there's crust on the snow surface. I think the nose breaks the snow first and then the front paws follow to widen the hole.
12. There is a lot of fox under the snow now. Who knows what is going on under there??
13. This is the straightest she extended herself on the landing. She held herself like this for a few seconds. I think she was feeling around for the vole or maybe scratching deeper with her paws.
14. After the landing, my buffer was about full, so I reset my AF point and recomposed for what she would do next. This is my favorite of the series. Im pretty sure she stayed down there for almost 15 seconds. That's a long time.
15. Here she is starting to push herself backwards out of the hole. I was curious to see if she caught her prey!
16. I still can't tell if there's a vole in her mouth. I was impressed that she was able to back out of that hole with just her forelegs. She shook off some snow from her face...
17. and I can now tell that she missed her target. At least she doesn't look too disappointed...
18. well, maybe a lot disappointed :(
19. This is the last shot that I took of her, as she trotted off to find another meal. She looks more determined in this photo. I never saw her again.
This was harder than I thought! I have so many that I like but I chose these 10 because of what they mean to me and the stories behind them. I have left out some of my award-winning photos, even though they were photographed in 2015, so that I could share some newer images. You can see all of my award-winning photos in my Gallery.
"Lady of the Lake"
"All Ruffled Up"
"What's the Matter, Momma?"
"Owlet in Pines"
"Thank You, Screech Owl"
A rufous-morph Eastern Screech Owl looks out from the cavity of a Sycamore Tree near my home in NJ.
My photos of this owl won a couple of awards in 2015, including Nature's Best Youth Highly Honored (18 and under), and 1st place in the Por el Planeta Nature, Wilidlife & Conservation Photography competition (11-14 year old).
This photo is of the last time I saw this owl, and it makes me wonder how it is doing. I hope it's safe.
"Alone in the Meadow"
The barks of her rescued hound dog, Thor, let Michelle Peziol know that my Dad and I had arrived at the Teton Cougar Project office in Kelly, Wyoming. It was a cold, sunny morning and Michelle, a Project Manager with TCP, waved through the office door and invited us inside. The office was covered in photographs, charts and lists of data of the local Mountain Lion populations. Big computer monitors on the tables showed maps with hotspots and pinpoints of the lions being studied. We sat down and talked to Michelle about the work the TCP team is doing and I was so excited to be there.
The month before, I had written a post on Facebook about Mountain Lions. I talked about meeting Steve Winter at the Por el Planeta Nature, Wildlife and Conservation Photography Competition in Mexico City, and about all of the work Steve has done on the world's big cats. I talked about how important it is to have empathy for big predators and that many may be misunderstood. My friend Lisa Robertson from Wyoming Untrapped saw my blog post and sent it to Mark Elbroch, Science Director of Panthera's Puma programs, like TCP. Mark invited me out for a day in the field to investigate kill sites. I couldn't believe it!
Talking with Michelle was an incredible experience. She was so nice and very smart. I learned about the technology that TCP uses to study Cougars, and how they track them using GPS collars. Some of these collars are heavy, and newer, lighter models are needed to help, especially with grown kittens. Some of the collars even drop off automatically after a year or so. We looked at the monitors and saw the paths that some Cougars had taken in the past week. Mostly they circled around in a territory, sometimes stopping to sleep. But other paths showed a lot of time spent in a very small area. Michelle was pretty sure those areas were kill sites, where a Cougar had taken down an elk or deer and was feeding.
It was hard to talk about the Mountain Lions and not feel emotional about their situation. Recently, I had seen a documentary on National Geographic about some Cougars in this area of Wyoming. They are called F61, F51, and M85. F61 and F51 are mothers, and M85 is a male. The documentary is based on these three mountain lions, and how successful F61 was in raising her two kittens (more on her later!). However, F51 and M85 have a different story. F51 was known as the “hippie mom” and was known for being a very loving and energetic mother. F51 had just lost 2 kittens, so due to stress, she started moving her remaining two kittens. She entered an area which used to be occupied by M29, a male, but this Cougar had been shot by hunters, and another male, M85, was now in his territory. As soon as their paths crossed, F51 was assumed to have attacked M85 possibly in defense of her kittens, and the bigger, stronger, male mountain lion killed her, leaving her two kittens orphaned. Michelle told us some more information about what happened to these two kittens and their fates. F51’s two kittens struggled to survive with many threats including wolves, bears and humans. They split up for awhile and they lost each other for about 2 weeks, until eventually reuniting. Unfortunately, one kitten died of starvation, while the other one survived for longer, feeding on grasshoppers, rotten carcasses, and really anything she could find, until one day she found a porcupine. She successfully killed this porcupine, but some quills found their way into her body, and eventually killed her. This story broke my heart. F51 had three litters in her lifetime. Two kittens from her first litter may still be alive. All 7 kittens from her last two litters died before they became adults.
As I was walking around the room, my eye caught a poster hanging up by the back door. It was the Teton Cougar Project family tree, and it was color coded, noting all of the Cougars studied since 1993. Red meant predation, or killed by another mountain lion or any other animal, blue was unknown, white was still alive, and the last color was orange. Orange meant killed by humans. Michelle explained that there are many different challenges that Cougars face: weather, hunting, wolves/bears, etc. I learned about how hard it is for a Cougar kitten to survive to adulthood. In fact, TCP's studies show that Cougar kitten mortality is higher than was thought before. I can't believe how difficult it must be for the people who work so hard studying these animals to find out that they were either killed by hunters or died of other causes. I tried to keep my mind off of this.
Michelle noticed that F61’s tracking collar had shown a lot of activity in a certain area, and we decided to go outside to check it out. It would be a long drive and hike, so I had to be prepared. We drove for awhile and then got out to snowshoe a couple of miles up into the mountains. On the way to the “kill,” we stopped at some older Mountain Lion cached kills from 9 months, to a year ago. These kills were an elk calf, and a white-tailed deer. Michelle found the white-tailed deer kill due to its white tail sticking out of the ground. However, the only things left of these two carcasses now were an elk calf leg, and some deer hair.
During our hike, Michelle told me about all of the wildlife she has seen in this area, including wolves, foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, elk and many species of raptor. Above us, a bald eagle perched on a cliff. I could see some elk high up on a snowy hillside. Ravens called back and forth in the cottonwoods behind us and I wondered if they had found something. There were animal tracks in the snow all around us. As we kept snowshoeing, Michelle spotted a cross fox trotting up on the cliffs above. I stopped and took some photos, and the fox moved on. It was my first time seeing a cross fox!
To get to the second old kill site, we had to climb higher. The 9 month old elk calf carcass was on a high slope a little ways from where the cross fox was. It was buried in snow. Mountain Lion kills are very important to many other scavengers including coyotes, foxes, wolves, bears, martens, ravens, magpies, eagles, and even smaller animals. Looking up at the hillside I could imagine the Cougar leaping down from a rock onto this elk calf. Just like the last kill site, there was a hill nearby, something the Mountain Lion can use to its advantage when hunting.
Michelle used her GPS to pinpoint the activity of F61 again. She pointed straight up. We drank some water and started climbing again, this time up a steep slope covered in rocks and snow. From here we could see the entire valley, the forested hillsides and the river flowing and winding way below. We stopped on a ridge and noticed a trail of tracks in the snow - there was a mix of wolf, fox, and coyote tracks, but no sign of Mountain Lion tracks. From there, we looked straight down at a pine forest, and the GPS led us right down there. After sliding over small pine trees, falling a ton of times, and getting snow in my back, sleeves, and gloves, we finally made it to the bottom, where we found even more activity. We started to see bits of hair scattered in the snow, until Michelle pointed to an elk calf carcass less than 100 feet away. It was pretty cleaned out, resting in a small gulley surrounded by brush. The head was intact along with the legs and hide. Some ribs had been broken off and taken away. The Cougar had probably eaten the organs first, followed by the muscle. The blood is an important nutrient source, too.
We noticed where F61 had first cached the elk, scraping sticks and snow into a pile on top of it, and then where she had dragged it further down the slope. As I walked closer, we found magpie tracks, fox tracks, and coyote tracks. I even found some marten scat. But what really caught my eye was this huge, disgusting, brown lump next to the carcass, frozen to the ground. It was the rumen from the elk's stomach. Michelle explained what this was and how it contained all of the grass and vegetation the elk ate. I was so curious and disgusted, that I kept asking questions about this lump. She said how it was inside the elks stomach, and how it was basically a huge scat...and that was the end of that conversation! Michelle also talked about how bears scavenge on these “lumps” and thats why bears may smell so bad. She also said how Mountain Lions don't smell bad because they sleep on sage or pine, and so they may smell like a Christmas tree. :-) Michelle had to fill out a sheet asking what the habitat was, what animals scavenged on it, what trees were around the elk, and how much of it was eaten. All of the muscle and organs were gone, so the rest was just a little meat, bones, and hair. F61 had left it about 3-4 days before we got there.
We searched around the kill site and found lots of clues, including some Mountain Lion scat, but I wanted to find a print. The snow was deep and it was shadowy, so it was difficult to find some. But luckily, we had Michelle with us. Michelle is an expert tracker. She was the first woman in North America to score a 100% on the Tracker Certification! Woohoo!! Michelle spotted some prints and we followed them for a bit. It was amazing to see how close the tracks came to trees and brush, and Michelle explained how big cats "slink" their way through the woods, using obstacles as protection and screening. Leaving the site, we saw more wolf tracks surrounding the area. Mountain Lions and wolves usually keep their distance, but wolves may try to drive Mountain Lions away if they ever cross paths. We headed back out after I took one last look around, trying to imagine what happened here to this young elk right around Christmas day. Maybe the Cougar had jumped out of a tree? Maybe it lay hidden in some deadfall, waiting for the elk to pass? Maybe it was a wild chase down the hillside?
As we slid down another snowy hill leading us back to the river, there were a couple or ravens and an eagle sitting on something that looked really small from where we were. The ravens were up in a tree and the eagle was standing on the thin ice right next to the rushing river, sitting on some kind of meat. As we got closer, the eagle flew away, letting us get close to the mysterious carcass. Thoughts ran through my mind.. Beaver? Otter? Nope. It was another elk. But, not a kill of wolves. This elk had drowned in the river and became frozen on the riverbank. The circle of life continued deep in the Gros Ventre backcountry.
After eating an entire pack of Honey Stingers for energy, we snowshoed back to the truck, listening to Michelle tell more stories about her awesome experience with Cougars. I kept looking above me in the pines across the river, and the rocky cliffs above me, hoping and wondering if F61 or another Cougar was up there somewhere, sleeping, or watching us. I wondered if it had kittens that were playing somewhere nearby, their spotted coats hopefully keeping them safe from predators. We spotted some mule deer crossing the river below us, but that was it - no more wildlife to be seen. Pretty soon I was folded up again in the back seat of the truck, on our way back to the office. I had a lot of information to think about, and I knew that night I would dream of Mountain Lions. I was tired.
I have a lot of respect for people like Mark, Michelle and their team that work so hard, every day, to collect data about an animal that not enough facts are known about. The longest running Mountain Lion project, TCP provides critical information on Mountain Lion survival, breeding and mortality and most importantly through their video and photo captures, data on the social behavior of these predators. The more we can learn about Mountain Lions, the more we can help protect them and make sure that they have a future.
Thank you, Teton Cougar Project for this awesome opportunity and I hope that you can continue adding to your Cougar "Family Tree". I will see you soon!!
For more information on the Teton Cougar Project, please visit these links. I hope that you will take the time to learn more about these amazing creatures, and support TCP with their important studies:
There are over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. One of them, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, is very close to my home. It was the first designated wilderness area within the Department of the Interior, having been saved from development (the Post Authority wanted it to be an airport!). It is a beautiful place with lots of open fields, swampy marshes and flowing creeks.
The Great Swamp is right in the migration path of many bird species that move in the winter down along the eastern coast. I’ve seen rough-legged hawks and many other raptors there as well, including northern harriers, kestrels and merlins. But my favorite bird to find there, the Barred Owl, is a year-round resident, and is usually very difficult to find. The Great Swamp is the perfect home for Barred Owls. These owls need dense woods and they like wet, marshy environments, which supply some of their preferred foods including frogs and crayfish. I am lucky that Barred Owls live in the Swamp, and that they are close to home. But I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to find them, much less photograph them.
When I was 9 years old I saw my first Barred Owl fly out of the woods and land on a branch just as the sun was setting. Over the years I've seen the same behavior in about the same place. I've learned a lot about the behavior of these owls, and in the process have understood how to plan, prepare for and take advantage of photographing them. Even though I don't have the absolute best photos of them, I understand that these owls live under some pressure of refuge visitors and traffic, and most often stay out of sight. Because of this, I enjoy every opportunity I get to see them, and if I can photograph them then it's even better.
(The first Barred Owl I ever saw and photographed, taken when I was 9 from a car window with a Sony A55 and a small Tamron telephoto lens)
The easiest time of the year to find an owl is in the winter. There are two reasons for this. First, the leaves are off the trees so you can see them more easily. Second, owls are preparing for nesting season and they may be more vocal than normal. If you live near woods you may hear an owl at night hooting. Sometimes you’ll hear a response from another owl. These conversations may either be mates trying to connect or they can be arguments between different owls over a territory.
For my owl planning, I first try to remember where I saw an owl the previous year. This is a good tip. Owls can mate for life, and if their nesting location is good, they will return to it. So if you saw an owl in one spot during the winter, if it survived the year, you could see it there again.
Second, I schedule time to make it happen, either in the morning or late afternoon.
I have a busy schedule after school. Usually I have a lot of homework, or I have other activities. I try to prepare for a photography outing in advance by choosing a day when my Dad can drive me after school to the Swamp. Once I have the day chosen, I keep an eye on the weather. Sometimes overcast can be good because it can give an even, soft light. Blue sky winter days can make the daylight last a little longer, though, and if you do see an owl, it will give you a chance to photograph it with some catchlight in its eyes. Basically any weather but rain works!
This is my photography gear checklist for when I’m going after a Barred Owl:
1. Longest lens possible plus a teleconverter
When I do see an owl, it can be really far away, so I need to be prepared for that. I also understand that the light could be poor, so I can take the teleconverter off to get a wider aperture if I need to.
This has been an important camera gear accessory for me. I fill mine with rice or dried beans. I sit in the backseat and roll the window down and drape the beanbag. We drive around slowly until I am ready to shoot something, then I raise my lens up onto the beanbag for stability. I do this very slowly to not cause the subject any stress. I usually leave Image Stabilizer on my lens when I do this just in case.
3. Shorter lens
Sometimes the owl may be close and I need a shorter lens. I could also use it in lower light, like if you have a f/2.8 lens.
I haven’t had to use one yet, because Barred Owls might spook if you open the car door. But just in case it’s good to have one. You never know what else you might see.
6. Camera bag (cards, batteries, lens cleaning kit)
Usually in the winter I only have ½ hour of shooting time available so I almost never have to change a battery or card. But I feel better about having it with me anyway.
(Sometimes you need to keep an open mind and consider that its best to photograph an owl from further away, to show more of its environment.)
Because Barred Owls are mostly crepuscular (they hunt between dusk and dawn), some people think it's difficult to find and photograph them, due to the lack of light. But I think the opposite, because dawn and dusk can provide the best, warm light if you can get it. It is also the time when owls are most active.
In the winter, one day a week my Dad picks me up from school and we first drive around to our favorite screech owl roost spots. Then we head to the Swamp, trying to get there by 4pm. I know I will have until 4:30 before the light really gets too dark. We drive slowly down a road with the windows down. He looks on one side and I look on the other. Sometimes I just fall asleep and he looks on both sides J.
Like other owls, Barred Owls like to roost up against a tree trunk of an evergreen – something that is full and offers protection and privacy. We look in these trees first. They are the easiest to find because all the other trees with be leafless. Then we look along exposed branches, trying to pick out football shapes in the tangle of branches.
Once we spot an owl, I raise my lens to the beanbag and look through the viewfinder to see if there are branches in the way. If there are, I ask my Dad to move forward or reverse to get a better angle. We are whispering at this point. Once I’ve found the spot, my Dad stops and he turns the car off to reduce vibration and keep quiet.
I used to shoot in Manual for most of my wildlife photography but I’ve since learned that Aperture Priority mode for stationary subjects really works best. I know I need my widest aperture if the subject is in the woods, so after setting it, I then dial in my ISO and try to have a shutter speed of at least 250, but sometimes that's not always possible. Owls rarely sit perfectly still. At this time of day they are becoming active and their heads are constantly pivoting left and right. Wind may also blow their feathers. Or they may blink. I try for the highest shutter speed possible while at the same time trying to keep my ISO as high as I can too.
Once I have my settings, I will compose in the camera and move my AF sensor point to one of the owl’s eyes. Then I’ll lean my face in tight to the eyecup and rest my left arm and hand up on top of the lens to steady it and reduce vibration. My arms aren't very long or heavy but I think it helps a little.
(Laying your arm onto the lens will stabilize and limit vibration)
I try to get as many shots as I can but pay careful attention to how the owl is behaving. If it looks alarmed or bothered I will quietly move on. Sometimes I’ll also sit and wait to see if it flies to a roost in better light! You should always try to look for different angles too, you never know what kind of opening in the branches or composition will be available to you unless you move around a little bit.
(In Aperture Priority, I may adjust the exposure compensation depending on the light.)
I hope you’ve learned something from my experiences photographing Barred Owls!
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