Sage Grouse: America’s Bird of Paradise P. 2

Greater Sage Grouse in early morning light

The greater sage grouse are unquestionably the American version of the bird of paradise – its mating displays are every bit as elaborate and extraordinary. Getting up close and personal with these birds like this demands the use of a blind set up on the edge of their ancestral leks. ISO 250 | f/4 | 1/5000 | D4 | 600mm | Tragopan Blind © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved

One hundred years ago there was an estimated 16 million greater sage grouse in the world. At least that is according to those who figure things out like that.  Theirs was a world of seemingly never ending high desert that once spanned from Alberta to Arizona, California to North Dakota. All of this has changed. Today, there is probably only around 300,000 of these birds left. They have gone extinct in 6 states and provinces. And of the 27 known viable populations of these birds, 20 of them are in steep decline.

All of this has brought the greater sage grouse to the doorstep of the Endangered Species List several times – not to mention to the doorstep of extinction itself. Yet when economic analysis’s reveal that listing this particular species as threatened or endangered could cost up to $5 billion dollars in economic output, the truth behind why this bird remains federally unprotected comes out. How exactly can this little big bird cost so much money to protect? Simple. Lost revenue from the oil and gas industry who also want access to much of that land. And if federal protection was to be granted to these birds, fossil fuel companies would be barred entrance from over 100 million acres of land they have their eyes on. So the results have been that the US Fish and Wildlife Service continues to churn out reports suggesting that sage grouse are doing just fine despite every other group of scientists on the planet looking at these birds argues otherwise.

One good thing has actually come from all of this for the greater sage grouse. If this bird were to find its way onto the endangered species list, states like Wyoming would suddenly find themselves losing control over vast swaths of their territories. This threat has scared the shit out of state governments all across the West, which has prompted them to try and get out ahead of this issue before the feds do. In other words, states like Wyoming are trying to lead the way in sage grouse conservation so that they don’t lose their say over the land inside of their borders. Fair enough. Whatever it takes to get the job done here.

Sage grouse depend on immense unbroken expanses of mature sagebrush for their survival. Remember, this is a desert we are talking about. Water is scarce. Available food changes from season to season and can force birds to travel up to 60 miles in order to find what they need to survive in this environment. But from the perspective of Western Civilization, sagebrush is useless. And so over the last 100 years we have burned, plowed, dug up, and destroyed millions of acres of sagebrush. Those areas that have not had its sagebrush completely eliminated have been chewed up by development, roads, and most importantly today, oil and gas development.

Unbroken is the key to the grouses survival. And in today’s high deserts, that can be a lot more difficult to find that you might think.

The last best place for the sage grouse happens to be Wyoming, which contains just shy of 40% of the entire population of these birds that once ranges across the entirety of western North America. Wyoming is the least populated state in the union – boasting only half a million people in a state the size of three or four eastern states put together. And it is for this reason that the majority of the viable habitat for sage grouse now resides in this state. All of this makes Wyoming, with the largest coal and natural gas productions in the country, the epicenter for sage grouse conservation right now.

 

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Sage Grouse: America’s Birds of Paradise p. 1

Greater Sage Grouse on lek at dawn

A male greater sage grouse strutting his stuff on a lek at dawn. One of the challenges in photographing sage grouse on their leks is simply mustering up the patience to wait until there is enough light around you to shoot. This is where full frame cameras really shine due to their larger pixel size, and therefore better light gathering capabilities. ISO 2000 | f/6.3 | 1/400th © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved.

Last week I was driving down a long wash board dirt road through a veritable sea of sagebrush. I had been here before a couple of years ago in this remote section of high desert to photograph the greater sage grouse. With a pair of binoculars resting on my lap as I drove, my cell phone range and on the other end was David from the Nature Conservancy. A state biologist had passed along my name to him and he wanted to know if I had any interest in photography the sage grouse on the leks at one of their sweeping private ranch preserves in the Snake River Plain.

The timing of this phone call could not have been better. Here I was, a few hundred miles from home, heading out into the high desert to set up a blind to shoot grouse from. Where was this ranch he was talking about? 30 miles west of me. Spinning my mud covered Land Cruiser around in the road – if you can call it a road – I plugged in the name of the road and headed west.

After Ron, the ranch manager, was gracious enough to take me around to inspect the various leks on the property, I chose a spot, got my blind together, and then headed off to find a hotel for the night. The whole trip had been something I kind of threw together in a moments notice, grabbing camera gear, blind, ghillie suit, and a change of clothes in a bit of a hurry. Normally I bring camping equipment with me when I know I will be this remote. I have a pretty sweet sleeping platform I built for my vehicle that I can then toss a Thermarest Dreamtime XL mattress ontop of and camp on location out the back of the Land Cruiser. I was about the time Dave called me up that I was realizing I had forgotten all of that stuff and would therefore have a nice 80 mile drive from a hotel at 3am to get to whatever lek I ended up setting up on.

The following morning, after 80 miles in the small hours of the morning, and several cans of Starbucks Double Shots, I turned onto the old dirt road the ranch set off of at the base of the mountains. By 5:30 am, I was zipped up in my blind and assembling my gear with an hour and a half of darkness left before sunrise. The greater sage grouse gets the party started pretty early. And so you need to find yourself in a blind at a bare minimum of an hour before first light – which is about 30 mins before sunrise. Otherwise, if the birds see you entering the blind, they will spook off the lek and may not return until the following morning.

Once in the blind though, the challenge becomes simply having the patience to wait for the light. Within minutes of settling down inside, I could hear the sound of the males all around me. The sound is unbelievable. Quite like nothing you’ve ever heard before if you have never spent time at a sage grouse lek. With some 30 birds already displaying and strutting within just feet of your lek, it can be difficult to resign yourself to just waiting when all you really want to do and shove your lens out the window and start shooting. Of course, this is totally futile an hour before sunrise. And so you settle in to the rythms of the grouse, listening, waiting, watching, as black becomes grey and then grey fades into subtle hints of blues, purples, and golds as dawn approaches, and the world around you comes alive.

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Three Toed Sloth on Cover of Outdoors Unlimited

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This year, while I was down in Panama, I learned that a photograph of mine from a trip to Panama last year made the front cover of December’s Outdoors Unlimited.

This is a photo of a brown throated three toed sloth. Look closely at all the green fur on her back – and I do say her because this is a pregnant female. That green is actually algae. The fur of the sloth is hollow which allows it collect water and grow a hydroponic garden of a species of algae found nowhere else in the world but on the back of a sloth. Additionally, you will also find a unique species of moth than lives nowhere else but on the algae that lives nowhere else but on the back of sloths. The leafy diet that these sloths eat does not actually provide them with all of the necessities of life – namely protein. So, they actually supplement their diet by feeding off of the algae that grows on their backs. Crazy!

Posted in Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

red-billed tropicbirds of Isla Pajaro

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This is the lost world. Situated a few miles off the coast of Isla Colon, Bird Island, or Isla Pajaro is nothing more than a tropical seastack in the Caribbean. Monster waves pound its cliffs, shooting water through caves, as salt water waterfalls cascade down the other side. Life here does not so much grow as it does explode from the island. This is a neotropical emerald colored gem set amongst a sea of sapphire blue. Palm trees grow from every crack in the rocks. Vines, or what are technically known as lianas literally drip hundreds of feet down from the micro rain forest perched atop this giant rock. And the birds. The thousands of birds drifting overhead, circling the island like a tornado. Red-billed tropicbirds, magnificent frigates, and brown boobies all call this oasis home. These birds are pelagic seabirds, meaning that they only come to these little islands during nesting season to lay a single solitary egg. The rest of their lives are spent over the open ocean.

I have had the opportunity to photograph the Galapagos variety of the red-billed tropic bird, but my boat trip out to Isla Pajaro was the first time I photographed the Atlantic variety. Its something that I have wanted to see and photograph for some time now and I can honestly say this little rookery did not disappoint!

Posted in Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , |

Favorite Photos of 2015

Can you believe that its over already? 2015. Going, going, gone. With new photographic goals, clients, and projects and on horizon for 2016 that is already consuming 99% of my time, I want to slow down for a moment and take a look back over the course of this past year to share some of my favorite images for the last 12 months.

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Posted in Wildlife Photography

Lilliputians in the land of Giants

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When it comes to photographing this poison frogs in the Panamanian rainforest, I like to get eye to eye with my subject. This lets me enter into their world. It makes them leap out of the composition and become larger than life. From this perspective however, its easy to forget just how small and delicate these tiny frogs are and how impossibly difficult to photograph them at times in the cathedral like rainforest. Luckily I have a couple guides who are like the poison frog whisperer’s and somehow always come through with new and beautiful color morphs for me on the different islands. Natalia and Romone, if you read this – I couldn’t do this without you!

 

Posted in Projects, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Lovely Poison Dart Frog

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The Lovely Poison Frog – yes that is its real name! A.K.A: Phyllobates lugubris

Look closely at its back. That is a tadpole right there. The males of the species stand guard over the eggs that the females lay until they hatch into tadpoles. From here, they scoop up the tadpoles and transport them to deep puddles where they stand guard until the tadpole morphs into a frog. Other species of poison frogs have a similar life cycle and will carry their tadpoles high in the trees to deposit them into water filled bromeliads, then make the same trip each day in order to provide the tadpoles with food.

This particular species of poison frog contains a toxin that affects the ability of muscles to contract. Your heart is a muscle. It must contract in order to pump blood. Stop muscles from contracting, and you stop the heart from beating. In other words, don’t lick this frog!

I chose to photograph this guy on a light table made out of pvc pipes, opaque white plexiglass, and with two flashes (one above and one below the plexiglass). The idea behind this was to showcase not only the frog in all of its beautiful colors, but to also reveal the tadpole on its back. And no, it was not fun lugging this thing around the tropics!

Isla Popa, Panama.

Posted in Projects, Technical Skills, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Poison Dart Frog – Bastimentos Red

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Based out of the Boca del Toro region of Panama, I spent the last week finding and photographing poison dart frogs, sloths, tropical birds, and tropicbirds (this last one is an actual species). The islands associated with the Bocas del Toro archipelago are some of the most diverse tropical islands in the Western Hemisphere. The Smithsonian calls this place the Galapagos of the Caribbean. And for damn good reason. Basically you had a landscape once firmly connected with itself. Then the seas rose. Valleys became flooded. Tall hills and mountain tops became islands. Animals become disconnected from the rest of their tribes. One big gene pool became many little gene ponds. Genetic mutations become dominant traits. The founder affect reigns supreme. New species are created. Competition for resources becomes intense. New niches are filled. Adaptive radiation occurs. New species are created again.

This tiny little poison frog that science so awkwardly calls Oophaga pumilio is a perfect example of all this. The frog has a couple common names that you may have heard: Strawberry frog and blue jeans frog. The name blue jeans is pretty apt given that just about everywhere this little guy lives they come in red with a pair of blue legs. From Nicaragua to Costa Rica and most of Panama – so the entirety of this guys range – this what you get. But when you enter Bocas del Toro however, everything changes. Suddenly you have frogs that are all red, all orange, all yellow, and all blue. You have orange frogs with big black dots and white bellies, and red frogs with little black dots and orange bellies. You have purple frogs. Frogs that are green on their back and yellow in the legs. You have 1980s leopard print colored frogs, and 1960s acid trip tie died frogs. Some frogs I don’t really know what color they are – as if Bob Ross paused for a moment from creating happy little trees and swirled together all the colors on his pallet and then flicked his brush at the dark canvas of the tropical rainforest splattering specs of a seemingly unlimited array of different colors across this landscape. Crayola doesn’t have shit on the colors of the Oophaga pumilio in Bocas del Toro. And this is the diversity of one little species of frog on these islands. Almost every year entirely new species of poison frogs are found here.

The image is dark and foreboding for a reason. THIS IS THE RAINFOREST! Ever been? Its not bright, open, and airy where these frogs live. They like it dark and wet. So when photographing this little guy in the tea cup mushroom, I had a choice to make. Do I set up multiple flashes, pop on the softboxes, and light up the world? Or, do I try to work with the scant amount of natural light available here, and judiciously work magic with a single off camera flash to give certain elements just a kiss of light – creating a photograph that resembles the forest floor of a multistoried rainforest that swirls around in my mind and imagination?

Imagination wins everytime.

Posted in Projects, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Devil is in the Details

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With binoculars plastered to my face, I counted over 100 mule deer from the seat of my Land Cruiser. This is a huge population of deer that eke out a living between the cottonwood lined Gallatin River and the bench that rises up to the west. Whether it’s because much of the land in between in happens to be Ted Turner’s ranch and the deer receive little to no hunting pressure here, or the food and habitat really is THAT good, I don’t know. Honestly, its probably a combination of both. But the fact remains, with a hundred plus deer all doing their thing in freshly fallen snow, this was bound to be a good morning.

November is the peak of the deer rut. Which deer? Any deer here in the US. From whitetails to mule deer, the second week of November is the peak of the action. And this isn’t just in Montana. This holds true from Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, to the snow covered dirt road that I was now competing with the deer for first tracks.

I was able to identify 12 buck. None of them had a lot of size to them, at least not compared to some of the monster muleys I have seen elsewhere. But beggars can’t be choosers and this was a whopping 2 minute drive from my house – and in the snow.

The deer here are quite habituated to vehicles, but as I would quickly learn – not so much to pedestrians carrying a big lens and tripod. So this meant that all of my photography would primarily take place from the seat of my vehicle today. This of course is not that bad of thing given that it was 20 degrees out and dumping heavy wet snow still. What was a problem with this is that it meant I had to write off about half the deer. One side of the road dropped down to a field. The other side rose up to a steep hillside with junipers scattered about. If I’m confined to my vehicle, this means that I would be shooting down at many of the deer and this is just not acceptable. I want to be, at a minimum, eye level – and the lower the better.

Luckily, an old barbed wire fence stood about 20 feet up on the hillside. The addition of this one very simple element offered the situation a world of options. And given the ease at which deer bound over such fences, I knew that it would just be a matter of time before I spotted an opportunity like this.

By the time I pulled back up to my house, I had watched and photographed several nice looking bucks leap over the barbed wire fence. However, it was here, in this one particular section, where all of the compositional elements came together. This little section had a lot of character with its drooping wire and leaning wooden posts. Add to this the diagonal lines that the fence creates through the composition and I had myself something worth noting.

It’s the little details like this fence that have the potential to make or break your photograph. Had a juniper been in the scene, the composition would not have been as strong. Had there been two posts here instead of three, the visual flow would have been changed. Had the fence have rolled off out of the frame differently, I may have simply thrown this image away. The devil is in all the little tiny details.

In landscape photography, you often times have a considerable amount of time to work out your compositions – especially if you are scouting for a sunrise or sunset. With wildlife photography you typically have but seconds to get it all figured out before everything changes. With this scenario I had to identify a buck, albeit a small one, that was working his way to the fence. Then I had maybe 5 seconds to get into position and compose this fence across my viewfinder – all the while hoping the deer doesn’t turn around or decide to walk down the road first.

It is for this reason that we have to constantly work to train our eyes to pick out and see pleasing compositions and patterns in the landscape. Because when opportunity knocks, sometimes you have but just a blink of the eye to make everything come together and all of the details must be ordered and in place before the action happens.

Posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Prairie Madness

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When you have a background like this, you move fast to find something, anything, to compose in front of it. Luckily, this is Yellowstone. And so finding wildlife high up in the hill country that makes up this side of the national park is pretty easy!

This large pronghorn buck was wrangling a small harem of ladies back and forth across this ridgeline. Gently navigating the random assortment of cacti that grow in this desert like grassland, we slipped into place just in time to capture this magnificent looking buck just minutes before the sun disappeared behind the mountain behind us and the world fell into shadow. Light and background. . . two elements that are more important that subject itself.

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