Tag Archive: photography


Frisky Grebes

Spring is in full swing in Alberta and the migratory birds have returned to their breeding grounds.  This includes the eared grebes, which are well known for their elaborate courtship dances.  Once paired up, it doesn’t take long to get down to the business at hand.

The first task is for the pair to build a small floating platform of vegetation and mud anchored to underwater plants. This platform needs to be large enough to allow the female to rest on it and sturdy enough to hold the weight of both birds.

Eared grebe female mating platform WM The female then crouches down onto the platform and tries to catch the attention of the male. This particular male seemed to be a bit slow and needed a few hints before he clued in.

Eared Grebe presenting to male WMAfter figuring out the not so subtle clues from the female, he quickly swam over, leaped up onto her back and precariously balanced while copulation happened.

Eared Grebes mating WMNo more than a few seconds later, the male used his large, lobed feet to paddle his way forward over the head of the female and back into the lake. Not the most graceful technique but given that they are the most abundant grebe in the world, it seems they have things figured out!

Eared Grebe pair WM

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Northern Lights photography has been my Achilles heel for the past few years. I either saw great displays but did not have my camera equipment or I stayed up late and waited with my gear but the lights did not materialize. Finally everything came together this week in Banff National Park. It was worth the wait and lack of sleep!

Nothern Lights version 2 WM

There are two things that are pretty common in Yellowstone during the spring. Almost everywhere we went we saw herds of bison and large flocks of mountain bluebirds, all of them searching out areas in the park where the snow had either completely disappeared or was just about to. The spring thaw and green-up was in full swing which made for prime feeding grounds. The bison were chomping down on tiny stems of green grass wherever they could find it and when that wasn’t available or was covered over in fresh snow, they resorted to winter-killed, high roughage stalks of grass. Bison have lots of character and this one seemed to want to go for a hillbilly look and I must say, pulled it off better than anyone else I have seen try.

Bison Hillbilly WM

It wasn’t until watching the bluebirds for some time that it became clear they were relying on by-products of bison to help them survive the first few months of spring. In March and early April there aren’t as many insects to feed on. But as it turns out, buried within and under old bison patties are lots of overwintering insect larvae. With their keen eyesight, the bluebirds snatched these insects up as they emerged from the dried-up dung. Other times they would use the piles as perches to get a better vantage point to spot their next meal.

Bluebird on bison patty WM

As the saying goes, one person’s trash is a another person’s treasure!  To some, this might diminish the image of these beautiful birds, but without them we would suffer even more from the torture of biting flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other pesky insects.  So for me it adds another level of appreciation since doing all of this dirty work and still looking good can’t be easy. With that I will end on a high note with one last photo that showcases just how spectacular and stunning these birds really are.

Bluebird flight and perched WM

Bison Bathing

Bison dust bathWhether scratching an itch, trying to remove flies and ticks, showing off during the rut, or just for fun, bison seem to get lots of enjoyment and satisfaction from rolling around in the dirt. This youngster spent several minutes having a great time getting dusted up before racing off to rejoin the herd.

It will be great to see these beasts back in Banff National Park in the near future.

Rogue Beaver

When you think of the Alaskan Highway what comes to mind? Probably beautiful landscapes, mountains, camper vans and occasional wildlife sightings along the shoulders. How about a feisty beaver walking down the highway?

Beaver walking down road WMWith no water in sight and no easy escape route from would be predators, the last place I expected to find a beaver was on a high elevation portion of the Alaskan highway in Northern BC.

Maybe it was the lure of fresh Aspen trees off in the distance or a predetermined rendezvous with another beaver, whatever the case, this one had decided to set out down the road.

As I came around the bend I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting it. Of course my next reaction was to pull over, grabbed my camera and start taking photos. After all, who would believe me if I said I saw a beaver walking down the Alaskan Highway?

After taking the above photo, I got out and tried to coax it off the road, but the plan didn’t really pan out the way I had drawn it up. Instead of leaving the road the beaver sat down and silently sized me up. It wasn’t budging and if anything it seemed more determined than before to stay put on the tarmac.

Road Beaver WMAfter sizing me up, the beaver stood and slowly stalked towards me. Then, with an unexpected and surprising burst of speed, it lunged forward as it let out menacing hiss. I had to quickly jump back to avoid being chewed on, but a new plan came to mind.

Charging Beaver WM

I used the beaver’s fighting spirit to lure it off the road and into the nearby ditch just as a car came around the corner. I can only imagine what they were thinking when they saw the beaver walking behind me alongside the road!

Raw Wilderness

First a disclaimer. If you are squeamish about seeing footage of nature at its most raw, than the below photos and story may not be for you. However, this is reality. Animals need to hunt to survive and some animals have to die so that others can live.

With that out of the way, below is one of the rarest wildlife moments I have ever seen and captured in photographs. It is an age old battle between predator and prey.  A young wolf honing its hunting skills against a seasoned mule deer.

With each photo, if you would like a closer view please click on it.

How it all started was that I was busy taking pictures of a bald eagle when I heard a big splash just up the river. When I turned to have a look I was shocked to see a black wolf running down the snow bank towards a mule deer that was frantically swimming across the water! I didn’t have much time to react or set up, my own adrenaline was kicking in as I fumbled with camera settings and started taking photos. Undeterred by the frigid water, the wolf bounded into the river in hot pursuit of the deer…

Wolf swimming after deer WM As the wolf made it close to shore, the deer who didn’t want to leave the relative security of the river and was resting along the banks, turned and they eyed each other up for a few seconds… Predator vs Prey WM FBThe pause in action didn’t last long, as the wolf jumped up onto the snow bank and came directly towards the deer. Relatively calmly, the deer turn and jump back into the river and again the wolf followed in close pursuit. By the time the deer reached the other side it had increased the distance between them and I thought it would easily escape. That seemed to be certain when the deer trotted out of the river and started heading for the forest. But then something strange happened. Just as it got to the trees it stopped in its tracks. Whether it sensed other wolves waiting for it in the trees I’m not sure, but for whatever reason it quickly spun around and headed back to the river just as the doggy paddling wolf was getting close to shore. The deer seemed to have made a critical mistake by turning back to the river. As it jumped into the shallows, a split second later the wolf made it to shore. With a burst of speed and water splashing everywhere, it sprinted along the rocky banks and quickly closed in on its prey… Head on off center BW WMWith only a few feet separating them, the deer made one last ditched effort to escape by frantically plunging back into the river. The stamina of both of these animals was incredible. It seemed like they had reserves of energy and any time one needed a surge of adrenaline they got it. It was spectacular to watch this back and forth battle play out in front of me… The Plunge BW WMSurvival in the wild is always a precarious balance. One misstep by the deer on a slippery rock was all that the wolf needed to gain the advantage. With one powerful bite, it leveraged the deer off its feet and the chase was over. Wolf deer water WM For most animals life is a daily struggle with little in the way of certainties. Wolves only have about a 10% success rate during hunts and so the majority of their prey get away to live another day. This particular wolf was just coming into its prime and its possible that the mule deer was an old male that was too weak from winter and the fall rut to outpace the wolf. Whatever the reason, nature took its course.

To have wild places in North America where animals can still play out their age old battles and we are the outsiders that only get rare glimpses into their world is something I hope we can maintain well into the future.

Cheers,

Owen

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year Pika WM

May your year be full of awe inspiring landscapes, remarkable wildlife sightings and an even greater appreciation for the natural world!

All the best,
Owen

Ramcicle WMIt’s big horn sheep rutting season in Alberta and the big rams are at their most impressive. Covered in snow and ice, this ram was filling up on minerals, with some of them sticking to his lower lip, before heading up the mountain to battle with the other rams for breeding rights.

Rocky Mountain Moose

It’s relatively rare to see moose in the Rockies. I see more wolves and bears than I see moose, but late fall and early winter always seem to be good times to run into them. You would think it wouldn’t be hard to  find them when they weigh around 500kg and stand about 2.5 meters tall at the shoulder, but this bull was only given away by his prominent set of antlers while he bedded down during a snow storm.

Moose antlers snow fall WM

Two other similarly camouflaged bulls were resting nearby, but when they got up and started moving towards the larger bull it didn’t take him long to get their attention. He stood up, flattened his ears and strutted over to them.

3 male moose standing WM

Bull moose will posture before ever sparring and the smaller bulls quickly realized they had no chance, put their heads down and got out of his way.

Moose retreat WM

Satisfied with his work, the big bull turned and had a look at me. I had placed myself next to a large tree just in case I needed to make a quick escape, but I guess he didn’t feel I was even worth trying to scare off since he just turned around and went back to feeding on willows. I was just fine with that!

Bull Moose Antlers WM

Drunk Bohemians

It’s the weekend and the holiday season is in full swing!  For many that means having a few drinks and while we may think we are unique in the animal world for liking to consume alcoholic products, sometimes overindulging and getting ourselves intoxicated, there are many other species that do the same thing. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident!

Waxwing morning frost WM

Take these Bohemian waxwings for example. Recently we treated several of these birds that came into the wildlife hospital with various injuries related to trauma. In early winter and spring it is common to come across large numbers of these birds on the ground, unable to fly and appearing drunk. They are in fact drunk!  Many berries ferment on trees and in Alberta a good example is mountain ash, a favourite of bohemian waxwings. If they don’t overindulged they are usually fine, but if they get a little carried away, they consume enough alcohol that they start falling out of trees!

Waxwing Frozen Berry WM

Some get picked off my cats and other predators, some recover soon enough to fly away and some try to fly but end up hitting windows, cars, buildings, etc. That’s the most likely reason why we had a handful come into us earlier this fall. We put them through our recovery program, which consisted of fluids, pain killers, rest, and a diet of non-fermented berries. They quickly sobered up and after several days, any lingering sore muscles, aches and pains were gone and they were ready to rejoin their flocks. Not too different from many people during the holiday season I would say!

Waxwings feeding WM

Bow River Magic WM

What better way to start the day than with a view like this?

Have a great day!

Red Wolf Pup WM

Would you like to directly impact the future of a critically endangered species?

Currently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of determining if the Red Wolf Recovery Program will continue.  This project has great personal significance to me, given that I was directly involved in efforts to save this species. In 2009,  while working at Lincoln Park Zoo I flew from Chicago with four, 1 week old red wolf pups in a carry-on suitcase!  We were head to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to link up with biologists to cross-foster the captive born pups into wild red wolf dens to bolster the wild red wolf population.

Click here for my 2009 travel blog featured on Lincoln Park Zoo’s website with lots of photos.

This species is one of the most endangered carnivores in the world (only about 80-110 in the wild) and drastic measures were and are needed to save it. With the intensive conservation measures mentioned above the population is slowly increasing but more work is required.

If you feel that red wolves are worth saving, please send your comments, concerns, or information to the following e-mail: redwolfreview@fws.gov.  Input needs to be provided by September 26th (next Friday)

Additional information on the Red Wolf Recovery Program can be found by clicking here.

Thanks for your support!

Owen

 

Fire Chicken

Sharp tailed grouse profile WM

Rarely do wildlife and great lighting come together, but we got lucky over several days in Grasslands National Park. On one of our early morning drives in the park we were rewarded when this female sharp-tailed grouse or fire grouse walked out into the gorgeous morning light and seemed to pose for her photo. If only wildlife photography was always this easy!

Bison Grasslands Fog Panoramic WM

Few places in Canada offer the peaceful solitude, natural beauty and diversity of species as Grasslands National Park. I tried to capture the magic of this place during our visit last week. With the help of a  lone bull bison gazing down into the Frenchman River Valley on a foggy August morning, I got the photo I was looking for. (click on the image for the full size)

If you are ever in Saskatchewan this park is one of the gems of the province and certainly well worth the detour.

Pileated woodpecker 2 WM

 

Have you ever wondered how a woodpecker can repeatedly bash its beak against a tree and never become concussed or even just a little bit disorientated?

New research shows that woodpeckers like this pileated woodpecker I photographed in Banff National Park earlier this summer experience forces of 1500 g’s while pecking bark off trees to get to the tasty insects.  To put that in perspective, the highest g force roller coasters are rated at only 5 g’s. Fighter jet pilots experience a maximum of 12 g’s and the highest short-term g force a person has every survived was just over 200 g’s. Nowhere near what a woodpecker experiences repeatedly throughout the day and never seems to suffer any harmful effects.

Pileated woodpecker motion WM

So what makes this possible? A few of the adaptations woodpeckers have include an elongated upper beak and beak internal structure that diverts the impact energy away from the brain or absorbs any excess in the spongy bone sitting in front of the skull. The energy diverted by the beak travels to the hyoid bone that wraps around the entire skull of woodpeckers and serves as a seat belt for the brain.  Lastly, to prevent the brain from sloshing around, woodpecker brains are tightly packed against the skull with reduced cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to prevent any movement.

To figure out how these adaptations help the woodpecker keep pecking at upwards of 20 pecks/second, researchers used CT scans to determine that they are able to deflect almost all (99.7%) of the impact to their heads through the rest of the body. What little remains is dissipated as heat in the beak and skull so that it never reaches the brain. This also explains why woodpeckers take frequent breaks from pecking on trees to let their heads cool down before their brains overheat! Pretty remarkable stuff with potential applications for helmet design to prevent concussions in people!

Certainly a group of birds with impressive adaptations. One day these birds might help save a lot of people from suffering brain damage and while we shouldn’t just care about nature for its benefits to us, it does provide one more reason to appreciate, preserve and learn more about the natural world.