The Prodigal Son Returns

Horses actually evolved on this continent. They made their way to Asia over the Bering Land Bridge as the first humans were walking the other way into the Americas. These first human immigrants may have had something to do with the extinction of horses here. However, when these animals returned with the conquering Europeans, they had circumnavigated the globe, an extreme case of the prodigal son returning. They were also much larger and more impressive than the dog-sized creatures that evolved here. There's a line in a John Denver song, "I had a vision of eagles and horses, high on a ridge in a race with the wind," and this kept running through my mind for 4 days. We didn't see a lot of eagles, but there were hundreds of wild horses thundering across the grassland. One band after another would come running past us, kicking up clouds of dust. If the scene sounds incredible, it was. In fact, it was photographically magical. The problems, such as they were, arose when the wind blew the dust our way.

Wild horse herd running across dusty prairie

Wild Horses in a Hurry


This part of Northern Utah was once the bed of an enormous inland sea, and the resulting soil forms a deep, talcum powder-like dust. A lone person walking through it creates a knee-high haboob. Our parking spot at the hotel looked like the chalk outline from a crime scene, and a herd of horses can create an almost impenetrable dirty fog that cameras could rarely focus through. The horses themselves were often dim silhouettes, even when the sound of drumming hooves was loud in our ears.


Wild horse herd & sunrise color

Breakfast With a View


Cathy and I have photographed wild horses many times in several different locations, but never have we had opportunities like we did here. For one thing, the numerous bands all stayed fairly close together, creating an enormous herd. Sometimes it took a bit of looking, but when you found the herd, the photography lasted for a long time. And, because there were so many horses clustered together, there was a lot of behavior, including fights. Most of the fights were short, only a couple of kicks, and afterwards the combatants would nuzzle each other like best buds. A couple of the fights however, went on long enough to obscure the battle behind a dust screen, making it almost impossible to tell the color of the fighting horses.


Wild horse stallions fighting

Kicking Up Some Dust


Our first experience with the horses was at a waterhole, and we were photographing from telephoto range to keep from disturbing them as they drank. We were a bit surprised to see them walking towards us after they had finished their drink, and they kept coming closer and closer until they were in wide-angle range unless you wanted face shots. We found that if we waited for the horses to approach us, they would continue right past, often feeding next to us without lifting their heads. I don't know what the horses were thinking. We obviously were not horses because we were far too slow and clumsy and we didn't smell quite right either (that was an understatement after days in the heat).


Wild horse herd

Checking Out The New Guy


Because the horses were so tolerant, we could often position ourselves to take full advantage of the sun and the scenery. A couple of times we were able to incorporate sunrises and sunset clouds with pieces of the herd. Listening to their soft neighs and whinnies as they munched the dry grass, made me want to respond in their own language, but I could only give thanks I was even privy to the conversation. It’s not something many people can say, and the magic didn’t stop there. The horses and the wild landscape took us back in time more than a century, and we were able to capture scenes from a West that disappeared long ago.


Wild horses & sunset clouds


Sunset Trail

Few creatures are the center of such intense debate as wild horses, but these rugged western landscapes would come up lacking without the thundering herds high on a ridge in a race with the wind.

The Dragon Photographer

In our early days of nature photography, long before I had any right to be that way, I was very competitive. I wanted the awards and accolades. If someone took a good shot of something, I wanted a better photo of the same subject. Most of the time I didn’t succeed in capturing one, but I certainly tried. I have mellowed somewhat as I’ve gotten older—perhaps I can even say “matured” now. I no longer need to have the best photos of everything, which makes life much easier. Not that I ever truly had the best images of any subject, but that task would be virtually impossible now.

Bull elk in velvet
Bull elk in velvet sniffing the flowers, Rocky Mountain National Park

Never mind the fact that no two photographers can even agree on which image is best, there are simply too many great photographers as well as quite a few lucky ones taking pictures of pretty much everything these days. It’s almost overwhelming. And the images that are being captured…all I can do is look and stand amazed by what I see today. Many of these photographers are going to lengths I just don’t feel up to anymore, so I almost humbly say, “Kudos and well done.”

Autumn creek
Autumn cascade, Rocky Mountain National Park

Some might say I’ve gotten old and lazy. I can’t argue with the old part, but I prefer to think I’ve adopted a zen attitude, where it’s enough to experience the wonders of the world without necessarily coming home with award-winning photos. Oh sure, I enjoy taking a great picture as much as the next guy, but my photos no longer have to be among the best. It’s enough to feel the wind, smell the air, hear the songs/cries/growls/roars/bugles, and simply bear witness to the miracle we are a part of. Using terminology from the movie Kung Fu Panda, I have become the Dragon Photographer—able to see the grandeur of lions making a kill in a life and death struggle in my urban backyard, and able to subsist on granola bars alone…at least until meal time.

Bryce Canyon
Morning hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

I still maintain that while the Earth doesn’t need any more people, it certainly needs more nature photographers—not necessarily even good ones, just people who care enough about wild places and their residents to want to capture them in pixels. Even though some of our favorite spots might become more crowded, we just might create a demand for more protected habitat. By sharing images of our experiences, we might even influence those who rarely come in contact with the natural world. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. So keep sticking your noses deeper and deeper into the mystery and majesty of the wild, recording it on whatever medium best suits you, and by all means, share it with the rest of us.

Bald eagles
Roosting bald eagles and snowy mountains, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

The Value of Uncomfortable

Yellow warbler bathing

This blog includes a couple of excerpts from our latest book, Worshipping With A Camera, for several reasons. The excerpts fit the subject well, it gives me a chance to promote the book again, and all but one image was taken on our Texas Birds Photo Tour—we’re going again in May—come join us!

Gull eating brine flies

The water of California’s Mono Lake is too salty for humans, but brine flies in untold billions find the habitat ideal. And because the brine flies are here, many birds consider this desolate place a land of milk and honey. Mono Lake was obviously created with species other than humans in mind. Does that mean we should drain the lake, desalinate the water and treat the land until it does make a comfortable environment or humans? The brine flies and the gulls certainly don’t think so. And just perhaps, neither does the power behind the lake’s creation.

Baby javelina

Humans seem unable to survive without altering the landscape, and not just altering it, but doing so violently and on a massive scale. Just how did our species survive long enough to overpopulate the Earth? It turns out we’re tougher than one would guess from our climate-controlled, hyper-sanitized dwellings. Somehow though, regardless of the conditions we can easily endure, our comfort and safety have taken precedence over everything else in the world. No matter the conditions outside, we want to wear the same outfit summer, winter, spring and fall. If an animal is potentially dangerous to us or even our pets, it must be eliminated. Entire ecosystems are smothered in concrete and asphalt just so we can be comfortable and safe. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s nice to see that in some places people are making an effort to save some uncomfortable pieces of habitat.

Roadrunner with lizard catch

South Texas scrub in its natural state is a harsh environment, a place of hellish heat and vicious thorns. The weather has been described as perpetual drought interrupted by periods of flood. The vegetation is usually drab-colored and has all joined in a common vendetta against all things that bleed. It doesn’t look like the kind of place colorful birds would call home. You can’t see them. Their calls seem to originate in thickets and brush. Spend some time at a waterhole though, and the most amazing things materialize around the edges. It’s as if something breathed life into tiny pieces of the rainbow and set them flitting through the underbrush. This is alchemy of the most powerful kind, changing thorns and dry seeds into living colors, drinking and bathing in the shallows.

Green jay pair

Something like 98% of Texas is in private hands, and that includes nearly all of the scrub in the Rio Grande flood plain. Many of the ranchers here live on huge tracts of land that have been in the family for generations. Most of them are not wealthy, even though their property is worth a fortune, and the temptation to subdivide and ruin the land must be enormous. The nature photography contests that brought photographers to these ranches, and if possible, made the ranchers love their lands even more, were a Godsend. Because of these contests, many ranches in the area now have blinds on waterholes with feeding stations. They have opened up an entire ecosystem to nature photographers, an ecosystem in which we had almost no access previously.

Desert tortoise and cactus flowers

South Texas scrub is about as nasty an environment as one could imagine, and yet people are doing their best to ensure it isn’t bulldozed aside. Here’s hoping they succeed. Here’s hoping South Texas will continue to be uncomfortable long after we’re gone.

Painted bunting bathing

A Thanksgiving Get Together

The day before Thanksgiving we took a short drive hoping to see some bighorn sheep. Maybe it was because we were already in holiday mode, maybe it was just nice to lie in bed on a cold morning. Whatever the reason, we ended up sleeping in and eating a leisurely breakfast. By the time we made it to the Waterton Canyon trailhead it was already 11 a.m., and we had a couple of miles to walk—not exactly the behavior we endorse in our wildlife photography lectures. Do as we say, not as we do.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

However, even though the sun was high and we didn’t expect to come home with any great shots, it was nice to get out and walk. About 21/2 miles up the road we spotted the sheep feeding on a hillside. We climbed about 100 feet above the road, trying to guess which direction the sheep were feeding, and then we sat and waited. Sometimes the magic works. In less than 20 minutes, the sheep fed their way right past where we were sitting. And even though the light wasn’t great, we congratulated ourselves on being accepted so close to the herd.

Bighorn sheep herd

We thought our day with the bighorns was pretty much over, but by the time we picked our way back down the hill to the road, the animals were standing beside it only 1/4 mile away. We worked our way up to the herd, shooting as we went, and stopping when they looked up at us. Before we knew it we were a part of the herd. We worried a bit about disturbing them, that is until they walked right up to me as I was kneeling beside the road. To top things off, the light changed. Heavy clouds, the forerunners of a Thanksgiving snowstorm, swallowed the sun, giving us even light with very little contrast.

Bighorn sheep & photographer

For more than an hour we had bighorn sheep on all sides of us, sometimes close enough to touch. The rams were touching noses with the ewes and checking to see who was ready to mate. The ewes were concentrating on eating for the most part, although a couple of them were flashing encouraging glances at the rams—probably just teasing. The lambs of the year seemed caught up in the overall excitement, trotting back and forth from one group to another. Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a group that would have me as a member.” Even though we were obviously the deficient members, it was incredible to be accepted, even as only honorary members, by a group like this. When we turned to walk away, we had bighorns walking all around us for the first 50 feet or so, as if they actually enjoyed our company. Most likely we were so unimportant they were just ignoring us, but it’s nice to pretend.

Young bighorn sheep

It ended up being the most productive bighorn shoot we’ve ever had, but that was secondary. It was the experience, the unlikely opportunity to be an uncoordinated member of the herd, that was so special. The most important thing the cameras did was drag us out of the house, giving us a chance to see something so wondrous. I want to reiterate that we advocate getting up early and trying to capture your subject in that golden sunrise light. However, sleeping in apparently works for us…no, no, no. That’s not the lesson here. The lesson here is that if you can only get away in the middle of the day, go then. You never know what treasures are waiting for you.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

Don't Worry, Be Happy

“Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway.”

—Tom Petty


Another sleepless night, tossing and turning, worrying about a seemingly endless supply of uncontrollable factors. Will the weather cooperate with our group of photographers? Are we going to have an aurora? Is a spirit bear going to show up? Will the filling in my right, rear molar last until my next visit to the dentist? The list goes on and on. Why do we worry so much about a future we cannot control? Why is it so hard to simply prepare as best we can, leave the future in the hands of the fates, and sleep as if we had no cares in the world? Sometimes having a big brain is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Orca spyhopping


While photographing orcas along British Columbia’s Inside Passage we happened upon a pod of transients. Transient orcas survive by eating other marine mammals, and the pod needs to average one or two kills each day, depending on the size of their prey. Usually transients are always on the move, making them difficult to keep up with and photograph. However, this particular pod was loafing in the same area for the entire morning and early afternoon. These orcas had just made a kill that morning and they were in high spirits, especially the two juveniles. We watched them for almost five hours as they rubbed against each other, spyhopped, tail-lobbed, breached and rolled on their backs. Sometimes they would approach right up to our boat or to a researcher’s zodiac (a researcher was usually with the whales), and it looked like these intelligent creatures were showing off. Many times they would leap out of the water and then poke their heads up to make sure we had seen what they did.

Orca tail


It’s understandable that the orcas were jubilant after having fed well, and were able to keep flesh and spirit together for another day or so. But what about tomorrow? Tomorrow meant another patient stalk in pursuit of seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and small whales, all of which are wary, hard-to-catch prey. Shouldn’t they be worried about making it through tomorrow…and the day after that, ad infinitum? Or just maybe the orcas have it right, and humans need to learn to lighten up.

Orca breaching


Granted, as intelligent as they are, killer whales have nowhere near the brain power humans do, and rather than being a handicap, this seems to give them an advantage in the worry-free nights department. It’s another example of humans using their brains for the wrong purposes. A lack of genius has allowed orcas, and by extension every wild thing, to stumble upon the enlightened path, something spiritual humans have been seeking for millennia. The answer we’ve been searching for appears to be the fact that every day on this side of the dirt is a day for celebration. Any day that finds you looking at the natural world through a viewfinder should be greeted with spyhops and breaches.

Orca checking out researcher's boat