Female Short-eared Owl on a snowy day

Female Short-eared Owl on a snowy dayFemale Short-eared Owl on a snowy day – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/800, ISO 500, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

One year ago today the sky was cloudy, the fog was thick and the snow was blowing in northern Utah. I couldn’t see the tops of the mountains or across the Great Salt Lake but I did spot this Short-eared Owl perched on a snow-covered bush on the causeway on my way to Antelope Island. The island itself was completely covered with fresh fallen snow and there were near whiteout conditions at times, I also photographed Coyotes and Chukars in very low light conditions.

The snow on the ground now has been there for quite some time but the weather is changing today with snow forecasted for later this evening. It sure would be wonderful to have fresh snow, to have the inversion cleaned out of the valley but better yet it would be terrific if I found another Short-eared Owl on a snowy day.

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Rough-legged Hawk on a foggy winter day

Rough-legged Hawk on a foggy dayRough-legged Hawk on a foggy winter day – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 500, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 257mm, natural light, not baited

This past Sunday I saw my first of the season Rough-legged Hawks and I was absolutely thrilled. There were definitely five different birds and a possible sixth. I mention possible because on the way to Bear River NWR’s auto tour route there was a Rough-legged Hawk perched on a tree on the north side of the river and on the way out I spotted a Roughie in flight about a half a mile away from that location and the bird that had been perched had left the tree. So it may have been the same bird or may not have been since all the Rough-legged Hawks seemed to be on the move.

I was dancing around in my seat seeing the Rough-legged Hawks again. They aren’t here in Utah for long because they only winter here.

Last winter their population numbers didn’t seem as high here in the Salt Lake Valley as in previous years and that may have been due in part to a crash in the vole population and because it was such a harsh winter with thick snow on the ground for long periods which made it difficult for any of the vole eating raptors to locate food.

The Rough-legged Hawk above was photographed in December of 2011 when the Roughies were in the valley in high numbers.

How many will we see this winter? That remains to be seen but I am excited all the same. The Roughies are back!

Mia

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Short-eared Owl in a fog

Vertical Short-eared Owl female

Vertical Short-eared Owl femaleD200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 0.0 EV, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm, natural light, not baited

I shared other images of this female Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)  back in November, the post was titled Short-eared Owl female – 13 minutes of joy. Many of those images were taken using between 280 – 400mm, with these images I backed the zoom all the way back to 200mm because the owl had been exhibiting behavior that indicated she might take off soon and I hoped to get some flight shots when she did.

Unfortunately when she did take flight my shutter speed was too slow to get any sharp images of her lifting off and the fog that was present made for tricky exposures but I enjoy these images all the same. I like the head on stare we were getting from her in the image above.
Horizontal Short-eared Owl femaleHorizontal Short-eared Owl femaleD200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 0.0 EV, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 200mm, natural light, not baited

I like the second photo because it shows the owl looking at something in the distance, completely comfortable with our presence and the beautiful yellow of her eyes. The fog lends a wonderful atmosphere and the subtle hues of the background compliment the colors of the owl.

I hope to find some Short-eared Owls this winter in Utah, I think that some snow would make for a lovely setting for these delightful & enchanting birds.

Mia

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Short-eared Owl female – 13 minutes of joy

Short-eared Owl female in a fog Female Short-eared Owl on the road in the fog – D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

A  foggy morning at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge brought me 13 minutes of joy after spotting a shape on the gravel road, it was a female Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) and she flew up  and landed on a post not too far from the road.

Female Short-eared Owl head onFemale Short-eared Owl head on -  D200, f7.1, 1/320, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, +0.7 EV, natural light, not baited

The fog was swirling around her, at times she would be clear of the mist and the post would be shrouded by the fog, other times she would be partially obscured and the post would be in the clear. The female owl was at the very edge of the miasma with the rising sun starting to burn it off .

Female Short-eared Owl parallaxingFemale Short-eared Owl parallaxing – D200, f7.1, 1/350, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not baited

Photographers dream about the “sweet” light usually found early in the morning or late afternoon. I know I appreciate that light too but I also love testing my skills  by photographing birds in difficult lighting situations while attempting to create compelling images. Photographing birds in a fog is one of those situations.

Female Short-eared Owl staringFemale Short-eared Owl staring – D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 280mm, +0.3 EV, natural light, not baited

The heavy fog aided in creating a monochromatic background for these image, the grasses and sagebrush were smoothed out by the fog and the bokeh of my lens. The Short-eared Owl female was quite comfortable with  my presence and posed on the fencepost in various ways with many different head positions.

Female Short-eared Owl with head turnFemale Short-eared Owl with head turn – D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 330mm, 0.0 EV, natural light, not baited

At the time I was photographing this owl I remember that I kept hoping that the fog would burn off and leave her in the sweet light of the early morning sun which would have allowed me to lower my ISO and show more of the fine details of the owl’s plumage. I was; however, extremely glad to have the chance to photograph her in the fog and to create images under the challenging circumstances.

Female Short-eared Owl looking downFemale Short-eared Owl looking down – D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 330mm, 0.0 EV, natural light, not baited

All I had was 13 minutes with this beautiful Short-eared Owl but those thirteen minutes brought me tremendous joy. Before the sun had burned off the misty fog the Short-eared Owl flew away into the mists and became for me a creature as ephemeral as the lake fog itself.

Mia

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Red Rock Lakes NWR, Montana

Another one of my favorite avian photography locations is Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southern Montana. I’ve been there twice this year since mid-June and I eagerly await returning to this wild and lovely refuge. It is yet another location where I feel at “home”.

As crazy as it may sound, every time I visit the state of Montana I feel taller. I can’t explain why I feel that way, I just do. Perhaps it is because of the “Big Sky” Montana is so well known for. I won’t spend much time trying to figure that out while I am there though because I’d much rather use my time to savor and photograph the incredible beauty found within and outside of the refuge.

Pronghorns on the road to Red Rock Lakes NWRPronghorn on the gravel road to Red Rock Lakes NWR - Nikon Coolpix s550, f3.5, 1/447, ISO 64, 6mm, natural light, taken through vehicle window

Getting to the Red Rock Lakes NWR from the west can be quite an adventure when the 29 mile gravel road is dry. Let me tell you that driving on it when it has rained or the road is wet can be nerve wracking, slippery and it will seem twice as long. Driving it through fog can be too as you never know what might jump out of the heavy fog onto the road. A Moose, an Elk, Pronghorn or even a bear. From I-15 at the tiny town of Monida you will enter the Centennial Valley driving east and to the south you will see the rugged beauty of the Centennial Mountains.

Tumbled down old barn on the way to Red Rock Lakes NWRA strange old barn seen on the road to Red Rock Lakes NWR from the west - Nikon Coolpix S550, f5.3, 1/380, ISO 64, 21mm, natural light

Along the way while making the 29 mile drive from Monida, you will see homesteads and ranches, some livable and some in ruins. One of my favorites is the collapsing old barn in the picture above. I don’t recall ever seeing a barn quite like it. It appears to have a central part, then four smaller parts on each of the four sides.  I wonder about the history of this barn and the people who built and used it. I just know when I see it that I smile because it is still there, it hasn’t fallen completely down yet.

Centennial Valley LupinesLupines blooming in June on a mountain meadow - Nikon Coolpix S550, f3.5, 1/734, ISO 64, 6mm, natural light

For flora photographers springtime would be great, lupines are just one of the flowers that seem abundant there. At the lower lake campground I was delighted to see Shooting Star Flowers in large numbers, the sunny dandelions heads and more. Birds will always get my attention first but it is hard to ignore those wildflowers or the soft rustling of the various reeds and grasses in the breeze. Or the pungent, pleasing aroma of the sagebrush.

At the west end of the gravel road look for Ferruginous Hawks, the ones we have seen have been down on the ground, not perched on a pole or wire. You’ll also catch glimpses of American Kestrels hovering overhead while looking for prey, hear the cry of an Eagle or Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead.

Welcome to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Sign at the entrance to Red Rock Lakes, NWR - Nikon Coolpix S550, f5.6, 1/250, ISO-78, 32mm, natural light

After this sign (driving from Monida) you enter the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and there is a road to the lower lake campground. The refuge was created in 1935, has been designated as a National Natural Landmark and in 1976 the creation of the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness comprised of 32, 350 acres ensures that no further human development will happen on the bulk of refuge land.

Be Bear Aware sign for Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife RefugeBe Bear Aware sign at Red Rock Lakes, NWR - Nikon Coolpix S550, f5.6, 1/249, ISO 80, 32mm, natural light

Across the road from the refuge entrance sign there is one more sign. I haven’t seen a bear on or near the refuge yet but I pay close attention to the “Be Bear Aware” signs, I am careful about food storage and keep my eyes out for the hulking forms of  Black Bears. Grizzly Bears too. Wolves have also been reported in the area so it pays to be aware of the large predators in the area. Mornings, which are often very special on the refuge are made even more spectacular by the sounds of calling Coyotes. There might be people who don’t like that sound, but I love it.

Red Rock Lakes NWR lower campgroundA view looking slightly south and east of the Red Rock Lakes NWR lower lake campground - Nikon Coolpix S550, f3.5, 1/786, ISO 64, 6mm, natural light

Spring comes later in the Centennial Valley than it does here in Utah; in June at the refuge there was a riot of color from the wildflowers and the grasses formed lush carpets of green that encroach the shorelines of the lakes. The willows must be tasty then because you can see Shiras Moose in the willows along the creeks.

Adult Pronghorn with youngA very young Pronghorn in June with an adult - D200, f6.3, 1/250, ISO 400, EV +0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

It is also a time when the young of many animals can be seen, one of my favorites are the young pronghorns, they appear to be delicate though they can run like the wind to keep up with the adults and to escape predators. Besides they are just so cute.

Short-eared Owl female at nestFemale Short-eared Owl at her nest - D200, f5.6, 1/200, ISO 640, EV +0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Many birds nest on the refuge, at least 100 species have been documented. This female Short-eared Owl has her nest under the sagebrush near the lower lakes campground, she had several chicks there but the sagebrush camouflages them well.

Male Short-eared Owl with prey for his youngMale Short-eared Owl bringing food to the nest - D200, f5.6, 1/640, ISO 640, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

The male Short-eared Owl did the hunting for voles to feed the chicks, he would fly into a perch with the food grasped in his talons and once he was on the perch he would transfer the prey to his beak then fly into the nest to hand off the food to the female. He seemed almost afraid to get too close to the chicks, I believe that was in part due to the aggressive nature of the female at the nest.

Moon over Red Rock Lakes NWR Daylight moonrise over Red Rock Lakes NWR - D200, f8, 1/180, ISO 320, tripod mounted, EV +1.7, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm

The skies over Red Rock Lakes NWR are mesmerizing, day or night. You can see for miles. At night the black velvet skies are filled with stars, you won’t ever see them as clearly in a city as you can out there in the wide open valley. I haven’t experimented much with night time photos but I’m going to try my next time there.

Swimming MuskratA Muskrat swimming in the lower lake - D200, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 320, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Along the shore of the lower lake you might come across a Great Blue Heron hunting, or coots nibbling on underwater vegetation, waterfowl making a racket or a muskrat gliding through the water.

Trumpeter Swans in flightTrumpeter Swans in flight over the lower lake of Red Rock Lakes NWR - D200, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 400, EV -0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

One of the birds that Red Rock Lakes NWR is very well known for is the Trumpeter Swan. In the early 1930′s Trumpeter Swans were in extreme danger of becoming extinct, they were over hunted for game and for their feathers. Due to conservation measures since the 1930′s we still have these swan’s today. It is our largest native waterfowl weighing in between 22 and 26 pounds with an average wingspan of 6.7 feet. The trumpeting call of these swan’s is unmistakable.

Mountain BluebirdMountain Bluebird on a post at Red Rock lakes NWR - D200, f6.3, 1/320, ISO 400, EV +0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Heading from the lower lake campground and driving towards the refuge headquarters look for Mountain Bluebirds on the fence posts. They are very numerous in the refuge but challenging to photograph because they are skittish.

Savannah Sparrow in the fog Savannah Sparrow on a fence post - D200, f5.6, 1/350, ISO 400, EV +0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

During the summer months you might also see Savannah Sparrows on the fence posts singing. Or in marshy areas a Wilson’s Snipe, you just never know.

Painted Banner on old buildingA lovely banner on a wooden building near Red Rock Lakes NWR Headquarters - Nikon Coolpix S550, f4, 1/250, ISO 91, 8mm, natural light

Near the refuge headquarters I spotted this banner on a wooden building and had to stop to take some photos of it. Each animal, bird and design appears to be lovingly hand painted. It is really interesting and well done.

Elk herd at Red Rock Lakes NWRHerd of Elk just west of the upper lake at Red Rock Lakes NWR - D200, f5.6, 1/350, ISO 400, EV +0.3, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

In between the upper and lowers lakes at Red Rock Lakes NWR there are some wide, flat grassy areas where you might see large herds of Elk. There are also Mule deer on the area that sometimes graze along with the cattle there in the summer.

Red Rock Lakes NWR upper lake view A view of the upper lake at Red Rock Lakes NWR - Nikon Coolpix S550, f4.6, 1/570, ISO 64, 11mm

The upper lake is every bit as stunning to view as the lower lake and has more trees in close proximity to the shoreline. You might find more Trumpeter Swan pairs feeding together, an Eagle high in the trees or see huge flocks of waterfowl resting on the surface of the lake.

View of Centennial Mountains from Upper Red Rock LakeMountain view from the upper lake at Red Rock Lakes, NWR - Nikon Coolpix S550, f3.5, 1/520, ISO 64, 6mm, natural light

Looking south from the upper lake there are the rugged shapes of the Centennial Mountains, with snow remaining up high well past the middle of June. These mountains feed the creeks and lakes of the valley with spring melt.

Red Rock CreekA pano view of Red Rock Creek

Red Rock Creek on the east side of the upper lakes meanders through grasslands and the banks of it are often lined with willows, it is very picturesque, the mountains and clouds framing a picture postcard view.

 Yellow-bellied Marmot at Red Rock Lakes NWRYellow-bellied Marmot east of the upper lake in the foothills - D200, f6.3, 1/350, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

This Yellow-bellied Marmot was photographed from a narrow road that goes to Mac Donald Pond on the refuge. You can also see chipmunks scurrying along the road, sitting on lichen covered rocks and peering out from behind sagebrush leaves. High on the hills in old dead snags you might see a Swainson’s Hawk looking over the valley floor. On Mac Donald Pond you might see many species of ducks or small flocks of migrating shorebirds.

Young PronghornYoung Pronghorn born earlier in the year - D200, f5.6, 1/750, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 220mm, natural light

Heading back to the campsite on this last trip I had the opportunity to photograph this young Pronghorn that was born earlier this year. They sure grow fast. At this point they were still traveling with the adults and they have begun to form loose herds with a single male close by.

Short-eared Owl femaleFemale Short-eared Owl in a fog at Red Rock Lakes NWR - D200, f7.1, 1/640, ISO 400, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 350mm, natural light, not baited

As an avian photographer I am always looking for the opportunity to photograph birds in unusual poses, beautiful settings and in all kinds of light. The light can change very rapidly at Red Rock Lakes NWR, the weather conditions can too. I was thrilled to find this female Short-eared Owl in the early morning with fog swirling in the air as the sun rise tried to burn through.

Sunlit fence at the lower campground of Red Rock Lakes NWRStormy skies with brilliant late afternoon light below at the lower lake campground of Red Rock Lakes NWR - Nikon Coolpix S550, f3.5, 1/250, ISO 125, 6mm, natural light

If you have never been to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and decide to go, whether you are a photographer, a bird watcher or a nature lover you will lose a bit of your heart to this incredibly wonderful place. I know I did.

Mia

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