Tag Archives: rut

Rocky Mountain Arsenal


For the last couple of years, I have been on a quest for big mule deer bucks. Now, living in the West as I do, mule deer are absolutely everywhere. On every pasture, in every wheat field, along just about every dirt road through open lands, you will find Odocoileus hemionus. But thus far, monster sized mule deer have always alluded me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have been fortunate to have some incredible experiences chasing after this species each November. Crawling my way around the Wind River Range in four-wheel drive, hiking through the sagebrush of Grand Tetons National Park, or putting mile after mile under my tires cruising the endless labyrinth of dirt roads across Montana. There are still so many places left across Wyoming and Montana for me to search.

In the meantime, I found myself down in Denver picking up a 1991 fj80 Land Cruiser (AKA cool old truck) to bring back to Bozeman and decided to check out a place I have heard much fanfare about: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Situated along the eastern edge of Denver and the northern edge of Aurora, this National Wildlife Refuge is, well, a bit more urban of an experience than I am used to. Now that is not to say that it is in the middle of the city, but let it suffice to say that the Denver skyline sits as the backdrop to the west, and a sprawling sports complex to the south.

Upon entering the refuge, I was immediately greeted with a black tailed prairie dog town, complete with chunky rodents running all over the place. Per the refuge biologist, this prairie dog town is also home to a couple of black footed ferrets – one of the most endangered species of mammals on the planet.

At first I was a bit disappointed. This IS a National Wildlife Refuge we are talking about. This means expansive protected and exquisitely managed land for maximum wildlife. And complete with little white signs everywhere stating Unauthorized Entry Prohibited. But then the deer began to appear.

Posted in Trip Reports, Wildlife Photography Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Story Trumps Everything


When is it OK not to see the eyes of your wildlife subject? When is it OK to photograph “butt shots?” When the story that the photograph tells is powerful enough to override just about every so called “rule” that you think you know in photography. Story is everything in our photographs. When it comes to selling photographs, story trumps all else. It trumps technical perfection. It trumps compositional rules. Story is what sells photographs. Technical perfection has never sold a photograph – ever. No buyer of fine art or editor of a magazine has ever stepped up to a photograph and thought to themselves, “wow. look at the technical quality of this image. Look there at the lack of noise. The exquisite perfection in focusing. And the exposure. Good God man, its perfect. I must have this!” No one in the history of buying photographs has ever thought any of that.

Photography is the art of capturing and telling stories.

So here we have a photograph of an elk bugling while facing away from us. Considering nothing more than the elk himself, this is all wrong. You can’t see the eye. The butt is the most prominent feature of the animal. He is looking the wrong way. But when the elk becomes part of the overall composition, all of this changes. From the perspective of the entire photograph, we have an elk perched atop a ridgeline high in the Rocky Mountains. He is bugling. Calling out across the mountains and valleys that roll off into a world impossibly larger than the bull can ever know exists. He is calling in would be challengers. He is luring in would be lovers. He is the king of the mountain. And he is the master of all that he sees.

This photograph is successful because of the story it tells. It is not simply the subject. It has nothing to do with the technical aspects of the image. As photographers, as visual artists, you have to begin to see beyond histograms and hyper focal distances. You have to begin to see in stories.

Posted in Technical Skills, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Also tagged , , , , , , , |

The Devil is in the Details


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 Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Rut in the Tetons


With a chance of snow in the immediate forecast, the golden hues of aspen and narrow leaf cottonwoods lighting up the edges of the forest, the evening bugles of elk filling the air, and the moose, those lumbering giants of the river valleys battling it out for the hearts and minds of the ladies all across the valley, I can honestly say there is no place else I would rather be right now! This place is like Hotel California. You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Given that we made the monumental decision to pack up and move across the country to North Carolina in order to film a documentary, coming back out here two months later like this and experiencing everything that I love about this place in just one single day has me already looking trying to find a rental house to pack up and move back out here to.


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