Most scientists are in agreement that the Earth has entered it’s sixth mass extinction event. Occasionally, approximately every 100 million year or so, a large percentage of existing species die off in a short period of time. The causes of these mass extinctions are varied, collisions with extraterrestrial debris and super volcanos are just a couple of possibilities. For primitive bacteria, it was their own waste product, oxygen, that was almost the end of life on this planet. What makes the current extinction event so unusual is that humans are entirely to blame. And not only are we the cause of this extinction event, we are apparently setting a speed record. Up until now, mass extinctions occurred over thousands of years. In an effort to show we are the equal of any natural process, we are on pace to eliminate 50% of the world’s species within a few hundred years, the blink of an eye in the geologic time scale.
I use the words “natural process” as if our actions were unnatural, and that is not accurate. Our actions are as natural as those of any other creature that crawls, swims or flies, and it is quite possible that humans are merely the next vector for an event whose time has come again. People automatically assume that mass extinctions are terrible occurrences, and they definitely are for species existing at the time of the extinction event. However, for the species that arise after the event, they are a blessing. If not for Chixulub, the comet or asteroid whose collision hastened the end of the dinosaurs, humans would still be nocturnal insectivores, gnawing roaches in the dark. Mammals had their chance to compete directly with dinosaurs, and it did not go well. Between the Cambrian and Mesozoic Periods 95% of the world’s species died off. It was the largest extinction event this planet has known, and it cleared the slate for an evolutionary free-for-all. The ancestors of mammals and dinosaurs competed for dominance on a relatively even playing field, and dinosaurs became the undisputed rulers of the world while mammals never amounted to more than a hairy prey item…until the dinosaurs were removed.
One of the interesting things about mass extinction events is that dominant animal groups are removed or severely diminished, and something totally new arises from the rubble to take their place. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals have all had their day. Birds missed out somehow, but maybe their day is still coming. Since there have only been five events so far, we can’t say with certainty that the dominant animal group is always eliminated, but that’s the way it has always happened in the past. If the trend continues, it will be interesting to see which group inherits the mantle of superiority when humans are no more.
The thing that has me preoccupied with endings and beginnings are recent findings involving a couple of very photogenic species, polar bears and monarch butterflies. It’s no secret that our planet is warming and the polar ice caps are receding drastically. Polar bears are dependent upon ice for their survival. The less ice there is, the fewer polar bears we’ll have. It’s quite possible that refuges will remain in the very far north where polar bears can bide their time till the next Ice Age (the ice will come again), but even places as far north as Svalbard are now reporting ice-free summers. Humans are more directly responsible for the decline in the monarch butterfly population. We have logged the groves where they winter, and we’ve gone to great lengths to elminate the milkweed they depend on. Most recently, the adoption of genetically modified corn, corn that can tolerate huge amounts of pesticide and/or have poisonous pollen, may be the final nail in their coffin. In a matter of decades, the Eastern population has declined by more than 80%. The Pacific population appeared to be slowly recovering or at least remaining stable, but between the winter of 2018 and 2019 80% of the butterflies disppeared. There are non-migratory populations of monarchs that are not affected, but the days of huge, hanging clusters comprised of thousands of monarchs may nearly be gone.
I know that life will carry on, that someday, perhaps after humans are long gone, new species will arise to take the place of the ones the planet has lost. However, regardless of how or why the extinction takes place, a world without polar bears and masses of monarchs covering branches and entire trees will seem diminished, a less magical place than the one we now live in.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Roosting bald eagles and snowy mountains, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.