June 24, 2010

Today was bittersweet, to say the least. Arrived in the park around 5:00 and, after spending some time with the golden eagles, headed up the Fountain Valley trail.

The temp was 90+ and it felt every bit that, if not hotter. At the Lyons Overlook trail there was the biggest pile of black bear scat I’ve ever seen, we’re talking big Grizzly size. I hiked to the top of the overlook, smelled the distinct odor of a bear nearby, and turned to my right just in time to watch the tail end of a big bear making its way into the oak brush. I stuck around for the next 45 minutes, shooting landscapes while I watched the movement of the bushes and listened to the bear root around – never got a clear look at the bear due to the thick brush, and finally gave up due to the unrelenting heat. Back down the trail toward the truck. I arrived at the parking lot and found Rob shooting a doe and her fawn, finally got some halfway decent fawn shots.

We spotted what looked to be either a mountain lion or a small deer on the hogback about 1000 yards away, and though we were both fairly sure that it was “slinking” through the brush and couldn’t be a deer, for some reason we ignored it and moved on. Nothing for the next hour. At 8:00 I decide that my luck might be better out of the truck, so I hit the Willow Creek trail. The hike yielded nothing but a great horned owl that waited until I was very close to it to fly, scared the heck out of me as it dove off of a low branch and sailed right over my head. Met one of my wildlife watching buddies on the way back to the truck, he had just returned from the Fountain Valley trail and, of course, got some shots of the big bear that I’d lost patience waiting for earlier. He informed me of a big problem with two bears in the nearby neighborhood, apparently two youngsters had been breaking into homes for food and were put down earlier in the day. By now the light was fading.

I was about to hop into the truck and leave the park when a couple of guys that I’d shared a bear sighting with last week pulled up and let me know that a lion had just crossed the road right in front of them in the canyon. Rob and I got there just in time to watch the lion climbing the canyon for a couple of minutes – it had crossed the road from south to north, most definitely the lion that we had seen earlier from so far away (Rob had snapped a couple of shots from some distance earlier, after close scrutiny we could see that it was a lion). By then it was too dark for my camera to get anything worthwhile, Rob’s camera handled it much better and he walked away with at least one decent shot – here’s the best one I got.

When I got home the news channels were all covering the bear story. The two yearling bears hadn’t been aggressive with people, they hadn’t bluff charged anyone, they hadn’t attacked a pet or livestock – they certainly hadn’t deserved to be killed. The cubs had broken into a home and were eating out of a residents freezer, when the homeowners arrived they fled – no aggression whatsoever. What happened to the three strikes rule that the DOW usually goes by? A spokesperson for the DOW was interviewed and claimed that the danger was that they would pass these bad habits (which they claimed that the bears had learned from their mother, though there was never a report of a mother bear with cubs breaking into homes in the area) onto their offspring, even though they wouldn’t be able to reproduce until at the earliest next year. These young bears, which had just been weaned from their mother and really knew no better, should’ve been hazed away from the neighborhood or trapped, tagged and relocated, certainly not trapped and killed. Based on the amount of negative comments online, I’d say that the public is as outraged as I am at the way the bears were handled. The DOW will definitely be “under the microscope” now, let’s hope they handle future situations differently.

June 23, 2010

Pretty quiet day in the field. The golden eaglet is so big now, it eats like a horse when mom brings dinner to the nest and cries for more between every bite – what an insatiable appetite! As I was hiking the Willow Creek trail with my buddy Jay and his family, a gray fox came trotting toward us with three rodents in its mouth. I recognized the fox from our first encounter on the 13th (due to the missing piece of its right ear), looks to be a mother rearing her young kits, hopefully I can get a glimpse of the little ones soon.

On my way out of the park, near the entrance station, there was a mother mule deer and her two very young twins – couldn’t be any cuter! I had just left the park and was on my way home when I noticed a group of coyotes howling and barking to the left of the dirt road. I pulled over and, though it was nearly dark, could make out the shape of a black bear walking through the sage near the large family of coyotes. Hopefully this bear doesn’t wander too far from the park, there are numerous neighborhoods nearby and a bear in a neighborhood is almost always trouble for both the bear and the community. No cubs today, fingers crossed even tighter for cubs tomorrow!

June 22, 2010

Arrived around 5 with my neighbor BJ and his son Aiden. We hiked the Fountain Valley trail, but it was just too hot to see much wildlife. The golden eaglet is growing so fast, it now looks like a little bald eagle with white left only on its head and dark feathers everywhere else. After a couple of trips up and down the road we finally spotted a black (Gorilla Bear) on the east side of the first hogback. Watched her for a while, then a second bear (Choco, still trying to prove to GB that he’s a worthy mate) wandered up and closely followed the first bear for the rest of the evening. Too far for any decent shots, but still well worth it – Aiden’s first bear sightings! After we’d left, my friend Allison sent me a text me to let me know that Choco had pushed GB’s boundaries and she had charged him and bit him on the butt (again), she’s not quite ready to mate, but that’s one persistent bruin! At 10:00 my wife and I were sitting on the front porch and a huge raccoon wandered down our street, it’s been a while since I’ve seen one in the neighborhood (a live one that is, always plenty of road-killed coons). Fingers crossed for cubs tomorrow!

June 17 – 20, 2010

Bears and fawns have kept me busy the past couple of days – I haven’t been able to get any really great shots, but the viewing has been excellent! The little golden eaglet is growing fast, showing more and more dark feathers every day. I’ve met some really nice folks on the trails, shared some wonderful wildlife sightings and made some great friends. The weather has been a lot hotter and drier than the past couple of weeks – hopefully we’ll get some more rain this week!

June 14 – 16, 2010

June 14th: Rob, Dan and I arrived at Roxborough around 6:00 PM. The golden eaglet was visible on the edge on the nest, squawking at the top of its little lungs. It wasn’t long before one of the adults showed up, circling above the nest. A small rabbit in the canyon below the nest never saw the eagle coming, and after a couple of minutes dinner was served.

After spending half an hour or so at the nest, we decided to push on. As soon as we reached the upper parking lot I noticed some movement on the right hand side of the road. I grabbed the radio, “Rob, the two bears are back – upper lot!” Dan and I hopped out of the truck, I went down onto my knees in the road and began shooting – the bears crossed the road in front of the truck and started walking east on the other side of the road. By the time I pulled my eye away from the viewfinder and stood up there were four cars stopped behind us – bear jam. The bears flanked the road for a bit, then headed up the Willow Creek trail.

We stuck with the bear pair for the next hour or so (I ran out of disk space and Dan ran out of battery power), then made our way back to the truck. We reached the truck as my buddy Chris and his wife pulled up. Chris was anxious to see his first bears of the season, so we told him where to look and he started up the trail. After a bit of “bear talk” with Rob, Dan and I drove east to take a look in the canyon. We reached the high pullout on the east side of the park where we usually scope from, and before I could get the spotting scope out Rob was on the radio. “Another bear, upper lot again!” This bear was extremely skittish – it had darted through the parking lot and attempted to scramble up a tree near Rob’s vehicle, but fell out about half way up. The reddish-cinnamon bear finally settled down a bit when it hit the brush line on the other side of the road, following the path that the other bears had taken, sniffing the ground for the scent trail as it walked along. Dan, Rob, Chris’ wife (sorry, I’m not very good at remembering names) and I watched the bear for a couple of minutes, then Chris came around the corner on the trail – just in time to see the third bear as it ran past. The light was gone, so we decided to call it a day.

June 15th: Arrived at Roxy around 6, and passed a large group of cub scouts at the visitor center on my way up the Fountain Valley trail. My hike yielded nothing, just too hot for the wildlife to be out. I made my way back to the truck and down to the eagle nest, arriving just in time to see an adult leaving the nest – just missed feeding time. I waited around at the nest for a couple of minutes, and a group of scouts led by a park volunteer came down the road. I did my best to point out the nest, but it’s camouflaged against the cliff and hard to make out without an eagle visible on it. Down the road, and after a half hour of nothing, I found myself back at the upper parking lot. Four deer shot out of the oak brush, heads held high, bleating and scattering as they ran at full speed. I picked up the radio – “Rob, you’d better get over here, something’s got these deer spooked. Definitely a predator.” As soon as I took my thumb off of the receiver a mountain lion walked out of the brush. “Mountain lion, mountain lion, get over here quick!” I was out of the car and shooting in a couple of seconds, and Rob raced into the parking lot. The lion slowly stalked toward us, eyes locked onto the two humans below it the entire time.

The lion came to about 40 feet from us and froze, looking off to the left. We could hear the sound of kids walking up the trail, and the lion obviously heard them as well, dropping down as low as it could in the tall grass, ears exposed above the foliage. The next hour was a blur – kids and parents trying to be a quiet as possible (these are kids, after all) while we watched the ears twitch in the grass. I shared my photos with the kids, discussing lion behavior with the brave ones at the front of the group and explaining to the frightened ones that the animal was just as afraid of us as we were of it. We could’ve ignored the scouts and let them pass by without ever seeing the lion, and we may have been able to get more shots after they passed, but I’m convinced that sharing this experience with the kids was the right thing to do. The joy and excitement on their faces made it worthwhile. Chris and his wife waited with me until dusk, and as soon as the crowd left the lion arose. It looked over at us for a moment, then disappeared into the thick oak brush. My first mountain lion sighting of the year, and I’d finally been able to get shots of the reclusive cat!

June 16th: Dan and I got into the park later than usual, about 6:30. Not much happening, another hot afternoon. We spent some time with the eaglet, squawking again at the edge of the nest as an adult circled overhead. Rob spotted a bear near the Willow Creek lot, and we were on the trail within shooting distance of the bear within 10 minutes. We spent the evening with the bear, a beautiful black that didn’t seem to mind our presence at all.

At sunset a female bear and cinnamon cub appeared on the top of the ridge above us, obviously very interested in the black bear we were photographing. She stood on her hind legs for a better view as the cub rambled around the rocks at her feet. First cub of the year, hopefully we’ll have more time with it in the future. The light was gone, so we headed back to the truck. Another 3-bear day, and these were three bears that we’d never seen before, bringing our running total to 7 individuals in the park so far this year – another day in parkadise!

June 12 – 13, 2010

Another great couple of days in the field! It’s been rainy and overcast, but you’ll get no complaints from me – the weather has kept much of the usual traffic out of Roxborough, and the wildlife viewing has been excellent. The golden eaglet (I’m fairly certain now that there is only one) is growing fast, it’s losing some of that baby “fur” and a few dark feathers are beginning to appear. Both adults can usually be found atop the cliffs somewhere near the nest, and lately a peregrine falcon has been perching nearby as well. Most of the muley bucks have joined bachelor groups, and the pregnant mule deer are busy evicting their yearlings, preparing to give birth to a new generation. It’s hard not to feel a little bad for the confused youngsters as they’re bitten, kicked and chased away by their loved ones. I remind myself that it’s time for them to face the world on their own, and nature isn’t always pretty, but it’s right.

The 12th was a fairly quiet evening – not a whole lot to see, just too stormy and wet for most of Roxy’s wild inhabitants.

On the 13th, Dan and I met Rob (and a nice group of mule deer bucks) near the entrance to Roxy, and after a couple of deer photos and a quick radio check, we were on our way into the park. Dan pointed out a bull elk grazing in the valley about 500 yards from the road, and after scoping, spotted another bull (a massive 6-pointer) that was at least three times farther away than the first – good eyes. I had somehow talked Dan into taking a quick hike, so at 6:00 we headed up the trail to Lyons Overlook. About 1/4 mile up the trail, we rounded a bend and I caught some movement along the rocks to the right of the trail. I stopped in my tracks – “Dan, fox…? not a red fox…? swift fox…? No, it’s a gray fox!” It took me a second to figure out what I was looking at – I’d never seen a gray fox before, and it almost looked like a mix between a fox and a cat. Little fox face, short legs, big bobcat-like feet (the only North American canid capable of climbing trees) and a long, grizzled gray tail with a black stripe down the middle and a black tip. It looked like it would be more at home in a South American jungle, not much at all like the red fox that I’m so well acquainted with. We took as many shots as we could before the fox grew tired of us and slowly walked down the rock and out of sight. Bad lighting and light rain made for grainy photos of the little guy, but nonetheless a great first-time experience with this species.

We passed a doe bedded down under some oak brush on the way up, then set up at the top for some landscape shots. After a couple of minutes we started back for the truck. The radio had a low battery and was spitting out interference noise (or so I assumed) throughout the hike back, and numerous attempts to reach Rob were unsuccessful. We rounded the corner near the visitor center and the noise on the radio suddenly cleared up, “Where are you guys? 2 bears, 2 bears! Past the eagle nest!”. Dan and I made a mad dash for the truck and drove down to Rob and the two bears. We hopped out and were able to get a couple quick shots before both bears disappeared into the creek bed.

Rob had been trying to call for fifteen minutes – another lesson learned, always charge the radios.

The rest of the evening was spent watching the bears from afar (a big boar and a smaller female, apparently courting) as they grazed and mingled in the valley, sharing the scope and binoculars with friendly wildlife watchers, enjoying the sunset, the silence, the smell of rain, and the cool night air.

June 9 – 11, 2010

Rain, rain, rain. Nearly all of the creeks and rivers in the area are flowing over their banks, and the usually brown and tan prairies have transformed into lush, green meadows. Deer are starting to give birth to their fawns – Dan, Rob and I watched a mother deer lick her wobbly twins clean as they nursed for the first time, they couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours old. We’ve seen only one golden eaglet on the big nest at Roxy (from our ground-level angle), but judging from the way that the adults act when it’s feeding time, I don’t doubt that there’s a smaller eaglet as well. The nightly thunder storms have been great for wildlife viewing, but not great for wildlife photography – just too dark and wet.

DOW Needlessly Kills Colorado Mountain Lion

A young mountain lion that built a den in the brush on River Street in Buena Vista, CO was shot because it already had an orange tag in its ear, Division of Wildlife manager Randy Hancock said June 1st.

The mountain lion was under a year old and weighed about 80 pounds, Hancock said. A little over two weeks ago, the mountain lion was seen in a subdivision in Chalk Creek. Chalk Creek residents contacted Salida DOW manager Rob Dobson. Dobson was able to walk right up to the mountain lion, Hancock said. The mountain lion was tranquilized, tagged and moved to more native country in the Fourmile Travel Management Area.

A couple of weeks ago, the mountain lion made its way to Buena Vista and killed a deer in an area along Cottonwood Creek just off Railroad Avenue. The mountain lion made a den in the brush near the deer carcass…

Click here to read the story

The West Needs More Wolves

Despite the dire predictions from hunter advocacy groups that wolves are “destroying” elk herds, the real problem for Montana and other western states is not that wolves eat too many elk; rather the problem is that they do not eat enough.

Top predators like wolves can reduce populations of elk, deer and moose. Rather than view this as a problem, as state wildlife agencies are prone to do, a reduction in ungulates is a good thing for ecosystems. Fewer elk, for instance, can give favored food items like aspen and willows more time to grow. More aspen and willows can mean more songbirds and more riparian vegetation, which in turn can reduce flooding and create more fish habitat…

Click here to read the rest of the story

June 8, 2010

The forecast called for rain in the early evening, so I left the house around 4 PM and met Rob at Roxborough, once again in search of bears. There wasn’t a whole lot happening at Roxy – no coyotes and no activity at the golden eagle nest, just a handful of distant deer. 5:15 and still no rain, though some dark clouds were beginning to move in from far to the west. We decided to try our luck at Chatfield for a while, then return to Roxy when the rain started. There wasn’t a whole lot happening at Chatty either – no coyotes at the den (there were two baby magpies in the bushes outside the den, still unable to fly – first time I’ve ever seen baby magpies) and no whitetail deer in sight, just a lone killdeer wading in the creek.

Back to Roxborough, and as soon as we drive through the canyon and turn around for a return sweep the rain begins to fall and I finally spot what I’ve been waiting all year to see – BEAR!!! I fumbled around with the 2-way radio for what seemed like forever and finally got a call out, “Rob! Get up here! Bear! Big bear!” The bear was over the hill to the north and out of sight within a minute, no photo opportunities whatsoever, but at least we’d finally seen one. It was headed for the Fountain Valley, so I parked the truck and started up the Fountain Valley trail. I passed a couple of frightened hikers and rounded the trail just in time to see the bear disappearing into the thick oak brush at the top of the hill, heading southwest. I waited out the downpour under a tree in the valley, and when I was sure that the bear wasn’t going to double back my way, I headed back to the truck. Rob hadn’t seen anything come over the hill yet, so we spent the next half hour waiting for the bear to show up – no dice, the bear never made another appearance.

At 8:00 I left the parking lot to check the canyon and east side of the park, Rob waited at the parking lot for the big bear to show up. I drove through the canyon and out the other side, and as I crested the hill on the east side of the park, I heard a group of coyotes loudly snarling, barking and howling, then spotted a black spot out in the flats surrounded by 4 coyotes – ANOTHER BEAR! The smaller bear had wandered into coyote turf and was surrounded by them, standing on hind legs and spinning around in circles trying to avoid a bite on the butt. The bear fought them off for a minute, then made a break for it to the south. The coyotes, surprisingly, did not give chase – probably guarding their den site. I franticly tried to reach Rob over the 2-way, but the canyon was too much for the radio… I tried to call him on the phone, but no answer so I left a panicked message… By now it was getting too dark for decent photos, but I clicked away anyway, excited to see my first Colorado black bears of the year.

I turned around and started driving back to the west side to alert Rob, and his crackled voice finally came over the radio, “Did you say bear? I’m on the way!” We spent the next twenty minutes watching the bear out in the flats. He kept wandering south, then got too close to another group of coyotes and the air was filled with howling and barking again, until he disappeared into the creek bed. We finally left the park around 8:45 – mission accomplished!

Bear Humor from Colorado Springs’ Ranger Rich

He’s big and he walks funny and grunts and we’ve long wondered if he “goes to the bathroom in the woods.” He makes us feel uneasy, and experts say if we see him we should stand our ground, yell and make ourselves look bigger.

We remind ourselves “he was here first” and we try to co-exist with him. But now maybe he’s sick or getting old or has a thorn in his foot. Perhaps he’s just frustrated by not being able to find a mate.

And today we’d like the Division of Wildlife to shoot him in the ass with a tranquilizer dart and drop him off deep in the forest hundreds of miles away so he won’t bother us ever again.

But enough about Doug Bruce…

Click here to read the story

Colorado Kills “2-Strike” Bear

An adult black bear that was a so-called “two-strike bear” for getting into residential areas was killed Friday by Colorado wildlife authorities. The bear was tranquilized and then killed in Pueblo after residents reported seeing it climbing up a tree in a residential neighborhood early Friday. The male bear weighed about 350 pounds and was about seven to 10 years old.

Click here to read the story

More Than a Dozen Bear Sightings in Denver Neighborhoods

Deputies are concerned because there have been several bear sightings in populated areas in Arapahoe County in the past few days.

“In this area it’s not expected,” said Lt. Chris George with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department.”However like we said earlier, it’s not uncommon, we can have contact with our wildlife here in the state just about anywhere, certainly unexpected down in this area.”

Tyler Baskfield, a spokesman for DOW said, “We want to remind people to alleviate any attractants from their yards, whether it’s barbeque grills, bird feed, pet food. Anything that may attract bears. You need to remember, bears have powerful noses and trying to pack on weight so they’re going to go for any easy meal sources here along the front range.”

Click here to read the story

June 5 & 6, 2010

My wife and I spent a good portion of the weekend at the Capitol Hill People’s Fair in downtown Denver, helping out at the Defenders of Wildlife information booth. We had a great time talking with people about current wildlife news and issues, and I (though I usually avoid captive subjects) took some time to shoot the ambassador birds in neighboring booths.

I was able to get out to the hills on the evening of the 6th – saw 2 foxes, 4 golden eagles, 8 hawks and a ton of deer, but no bear yet…

June 4, 2010

Left the house for some sunset shooting around 5:30. Had Dan or I known that there was a triathlon event going on at Cherry Creek, we probably would’ve gone elsewhere… Anyway, we stuck it out until the race was over, and I’m glad we did. The light was great and the deer really “popped” against the green grass – at the end of the day, we walked away with a few decent shots.

June 1 – 3, 2010

I’ve been sticking around my neck of the woods lately, waiting for coyote pups to emerge from their dens and searching for bears arriving from the high country (no luck yet, though several sightings by others) – patience, patience, patience….

Merry May Memories

It seems like May, one of my favorite months for photography, passed by so quickly this year… I spent a good portion of the month outdoors, and, with patience and luck, was able to see and photograph many of the wild creatures that call Colorado home: moose, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, lynx, coyote, fox, porcupine, beaver, yellow-bellied marmot, muskrat, black-tailed prairie dog, abert’s squirrel, american pika, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, spotted ground squirrel, golden mantel ground squirrel, vole, great blue heron, canada goose, cackling goose, bald eagle, golden eagle, great horned owl, night heron, glossy ibis, osprey, cormorant, snowy egret, raven, mallard, cinnamon teal, wood duck, ring-necked duck, common merganser, redhead, red-tailed hawk, cooper’s hawk, prairie falcon, magpie, crow, steller’s jay, avocet, killdeer, northern flicker, bullock’s oriole, kestrel, kingfisher, mountain bluebird, broad-tailed hummingbird, red-throated hummingbird and a ton of other small birds.

A few snapshots from last month:

Only a couple of weeks until Spring yields to the dry heat of Summer, bring on the bears!

Colorado Bighorn Population Under Threat

In the latest twist of an ecological saga, non-native mountain goats are displacing the sheep along the road from Echo Lake Lodge to Mount Evans’ 14,264-foot summit. The nine goats that state wildlife managers transplanted to mountains near Salida multiplied to more than 1,500 and spread. About 140 live on Mount Evans. Some have crossed north of I-70. Researchers recently recorded an encounter between the species. A snow-white goat approached three bighorn sheep licking salt. The goat lowered its dark horns and charged. The sheep scattered, and the goat took over, savoring the salt…

Click here to read the story

May 30 & 31, 2010

The road to Mt. Evans finally opened on the 28th, so I was really excited to get up there in search of mountain goats. The trip up on the 30th presented some awesome vistas and a couple of marmots, but only one goat – a big billy on the run at about a million yards. Early morning on the 31st, however, made for some great goat shooting.

A couple of days on an alpine mountaintop with my wife and her mom, a great way to spend Memorial Day weekend, thanks guys!

Why Restore Wolves in Colorado?

Colorado Needs Wolves

Predators play a dynamic and essential role in maintaining the health of ecosystems. Wolves prey mostly on animals that are young or elderly, sick or injured, and weak or unfit, thus helping to keep prey populations healthy and vigorous. By preventing large herbivores such as deer and elk from becoming overpopulated, wolves help maintain native biodiversity. When deer and elk become too abundant for their habitat, they overgraze and destroy the plant base, making the habitat less suitable for other species.

The complete removal of wolves from Colorado by 1943 has altered the natural relationships among animals and plants ecologically associated with wolves. This disruption led to increases in some species and declines in others, adversely affecting biological diversity. Removing large predators allowed smaller, more generalized predators to increase their numbers, range and exploitation of food sources. For example, when gray wolves were eliminated, coyote numbers exploded.

Here are a couple of excellent documentary videos that better explain why Colorado needs wolves:

Return to the Wild: A Modern Tale of Wolf & Man
A fair and open-minded look at the re-introduction of the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies, the friction it has caused, and the passionate debate it has stirred. The goal of the documentary is to address the issue of how man and predator can co-exist, in the hope of finding a balanced solution that addresses the needs of the ranchers, wildlife supporters, hunters, and most importantly, the wolves themselves.

Click here to watch or download “Return to the Wild”

Restoring the Wolf, Restoring the Wild
I was thrilled when one of my favorite wildlife conservation groups, WildEarth Guardians, contacted me about using some of my photos for their “Restoring the Wolf, Restoring the Wild” photo essay, narrated by Alan Arkin!

“The release is a celebration and a call to action. From the snowy peaks of the Colorado Rockies to the Mexican border and all throughout the American West, wolves are a symbol of freedom and wildness to cherish and protect.” – WildEarth Guardians

Click here to see the photo essay