Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography: Blog http://www.jayryser.com/blog en-us (C) Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) Sun, 13 Jul 2014 01:00:00 GMT Sun, 13 Jul 2014 01:00:00 GMT http://www.jayryser.com/img/s8/v84/u872809256-o451241689-50.jpg Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography: Blog http://www.jayryser.com/blog 109 120 Switching to Mirrorless http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2014/7/switching-to-mirrorless I'm a photographer, primarily wildlife and nature.  That means I have some fairly specific needs, with gear I tend to use a lot (longer focal length lenses sometimes, tripods, sometimes flashes and flash extenders), and less need for some other gear (reflectors, big soft boxes, laptop for tethered shooting, for instance).  I'm fairly used to carrying some heavy gear long distances to make just a few images sometimes.  There can be a lot of stuff to cart around, and I'm not getting any younger.

My first DSLR (after a series of bridge cameras) was the Sony a100.  I used an old Canon film SLR decades ago and had no modern lenses, so I wasn’t married to any lens system.  And I like to support the underdog, and I've never been a traditionalist, so I did the Sony system.  I’ve never regretted it.  I upgraded from the a100 to the a700 as soon as it was released, and was using that as my primary camera for a while.  I got the a580 as a back up; it’s barely been used and almost new.  I got the a77 as soon as it was released, too.

I still love the a77; it does everything I want it to do (except maybe high ISO).  Before the a77ii was released, there were a lot of rumors about the specs, the most prominent being it would have a 32mp sensor and be mirrorless.  I don’t really need 32mp, but it sounded interesting, and I planned to upgrade.  But then it turns out that the a77ii would still have a 24mp sensor (yeah, a generation or two improved from the a77), and maybe a better AF system, but the new a6000 already had all that, and at a quarter of the size and weight of the a77 (with the vertical grip, which lives on the a77).  I decided to get the a6000 mostly as an experiment until the a77ii came out – I figured I could return it to Amazon after I played with it.

After I played with it, I really enjoyed it.  Light, compact, and image quality at least as good as the a77.  I just used both cameras with the barking Mamma Marmot, and the files might (might) be slightly better from the a6000, but for all practical purposes, the IQ from the a6000 leaves nothing to be desired.

The a77 still has some advantages: The controls are easier to use (I have big hands, and wear gloves most of the time at altitude and in the winter, and the a77 is easier to operate).  Accessing the controls on the a6000 (a smaller body, obviously, with smaller buttons and controls) is more difficult at baseline, and I have to set it and leave it if I have gloves on.  I don’t change settings that much, so not a big problem.  It’s also more difficult to set a specific focus point.  On the a77, I use the toggle on the back and quickly put it where I want it (usually the critter’s eyeball).  Focus is ALWAYS spot on with the a77.  It’s taken me a little while to fiddle with the a6000’s focus system, and I can do most things I want, but it isn’t as easy or precise as with the a77.  The max shutter speed on the a6000 is only 1/4000, compared to 1/8000 on the a77.  Usually not a big deal.  The other disadvantage of the a6000 is a limited buffer size – shooting 11fps burns it up pretty quickly; I can still shoot brief bursts while it’s clearing the buffer, but I have to pace myself.  The a77 can rattle off frames and I usually don’t hit the buffer too often.  One thing I do like, that I initially thought was a disadvantage, was no external battery charger; lots of folks complained about that, but I use the same charger for the a6000 that I use for my phone.  I charge it while driving to locations, I charge it beside me on the desk, and when traveling I just have one tiny cable.  Much more convenient.

The a77 is still a great camera, but the a6000 is light, compact, and a lot of fun.  I'm immediately noticing that rather than carrying two or even three camera bags along with my Think Tank camera harness and modular mount system (frequently crammed into a giant plastic storage bin for convenience and to keep everything together in the car and in the basement), I'm down to one  small Think Tank bag for both a6000's, one with the SE 70-200mm f/4 G, and the other with the the 70-400 with the adapter.  I can keep everything in the front seat of the car and have easy access to it, and only have to make one trip from the car.

The first image is from the a6000 with the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G

The second image is from the a77 with the Sony 70-400mm
Marmot Barking-9132-a6000+70-200-1
The final image is from the a6000 with the Sony Zeiss 16-79mm f/4
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) DSLR vs Mirrorless mirrorless wildlife photography switching to mirrorless why I switched to mirrorless http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2014/7/switching-to-mirrorless Sat, 12 Jul 2014 17:32:59 GMT
Wide Angle Wildlife http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2012/6/wide-angle-wildlife Kind of a long post, but I'm on vacation and have the time.

I started and mostly completed a new project today; that's unfortunate, since I like having a project I can throw myself into for a long period of time.  Some of my previous projects included fox kits, coyotes, and pikas.  This new project initially involved pikas, But I haven't found any cooperative pikas so far this summer.

But I'm getting ahead of myself . . .

Andrew Kelley and I were out looking for owlets one recent spring morning.  We found the owlets quickly, got some decent images, and decided to look for other subjects.  This was the same park where I'd photographed foxes, who are all now sadly dead or, hopefully, relocated.  As we carried our heavy photography gear from one end of the rather long park to the other end, we mentioned how nice it would be to have one of those gear carts to haul all our stuff instead of  breaking our collective backs for an image, but I'm not about to spend $200 buck on a gear cart when I can pick up a used jogging stroller on Craig's List for $40.

We commented that with the crappy economy, it would be cheaper to just hire some recent college graduates as Sherpas and let them haul our gear around.  Their official title would be "intern" on the resume, but Sherpa sounds classier.  I'm not sure which of us made the next leap of logic (I'm officially  going to say it was Andrew, because I'm trying to stay off my wife's "You Did What Now?" Radar), but we decided that instead of recent college graduates to haul our gear, we'd get a fleet of golf carts driven by Bikini Babes (it's an official title - look it up) acting as caddies for photographers.  They could serve beverages, make recommendations ("I'd go with the 70-200 for this shot - open it up wide"), and drive photographers from point to point (OK, a little bit of a pun intended).  I know I'd pay for that service.

You're probably thinking my new project involves interviewing Bikini Babes and renting a fleet of golf carts . . . you know, that's really not a bad idea.  It''s summer - I could put up some flyers around the local pools, and work out some sort of vendor arrangement at the state and national parks . . . but I digress.  I mentioned afterwards to Andrew my idea of shooting pikas with a macro lens.  I had a cooperate pika 2 years ago that would have been perfect for that, but his replacement last year proved to be completely uncooperative.  That's when we thought of going a slightly different direction - doing some wide angle wildlife photography.  We both read the article in Outdoor Photographer.

Let me add that we are not irresponsible photographers, and do not make a habit of  making animals uncomfortable in our presence.  Fortunately, Colorado has lots of wildlife, and some of that wildlife is fairly acclimated to human presence.  I photograph pikas that run between my legs and perch on my shoe, foxes that root through my camera bag when my back is turned, and mountain goats that casually stroll by me at arms length.  I don't approach them, but they do at times come close to me.  As long as I don't move or make too much noise, they don't seem to mind.

Our original plan involved setting up a tripod along our pika's usual route through the talus, triggered remotely (the camera, not the pika).  If we were lucky, we could get wide angle images of a pika with his mouth full of alpine flowers, with Bierstadt, Grays, Torreys, and maybe even Mount of the Holy Cross in the background.  Unfortunately, my pika models have been notoriously absent from that location.

That's OK, I can adapt.  I'm now carrying a second DSLR with the 16-50mm lens with me at all times when I'm out with the tripod and telephoto lens, and I'm using it more and more.  I'm able to get mountain goats and bighorns pretty easily - the only limiting factor is my gimpy knee that limits my ability to get as low as I want to get to keep the animal at eye level (the last time I got up from a squatting position, the noise I made from the knee pain had mountain goat kids running for cover).  Decent images, but not the greatest backgrounds.

Today my plan was to spend more time with a calm marmot who I've been photographing recently.  He spends a lot of time sunning on a big rock (approximately 13,500ft), which is nice, but even better, Mt Bierstadt, including the Sawtooth ridge, are just behind him.  He was nowhere to be seen when I arrived, so I set up the tripod to include his rock in the foreground and Bierstadt in the background.  Fortunately, the camera has a tilting LCD, so composing the shot without having to kneel was a huge plus.  

Right on cue, the marmot appeared.  Just not on the rock.  He was curious about my gear, and decided to check out the other tripod I had set up with the telephoto lens.  Part of me feared he would push over the tripod, part of me hoped he would stand up and try to look through the viewfinder.  He did neither.  His curiosity satisfied, he got up on the rock and hit his mark.  I managed to take over 150 images over the course of about 30 minutes.  He'd variously pose on the rock, check out my gear, and check me out.

I may have a new favorite wildlife model.
All images included shot with a 16-50mm lens, most well below 50mm in focal length.

jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) Colorado Mountains Rocky angle photography wide wildlife http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2012/6/wide-angle-wildlife Sat, 30 Jun 2012 02:05:42 GMT
Finally - Fox Kits http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/5/finally-fox-kits

Until today, finding fox kits this Spring has been frustrating.  There was a den very close to my house, but it was on private property, and Momma Fox was not receptive to photographers.  As foxes do, I suspect she moved that den as I haven't seen them in more than a week.

The den in Summit County was covered in snow, and blasting winds and cold temps made seeing foxes unlikely.

I did have an opportunity to go with John de Bord today to a new den in the Lyons/Ward area.  I got up at 0330 and we arrived on site at about 0630 . . . and waited and waited and waited . . . until 1100, when I decided to call it quits and was packing my gear.

That's when Momma Fox showed up, and when she showed up, the kits came bouncing out to see her.  Neither Momma Fox or the kits seemed to mind having us around.

Red Fox Kit (Vulpes vulpes)
Lyons, CO
Sony a700
Jobu gimbal, Feisol tripod

ISO400, 1/125, f/5.6, 400mm

Shot in RAW, processed in Lightroom 3 and Nik software

You can find more images on my web site
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/5/finally-fox-kits Sat, 07 May 2011 17:46:00 GMT
Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/4/age-activated-attention-deficit

jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/4/age-activated-attention-deficit Sat, 02 Apr 2011 09:13:00 GMT
Jumping for Voles http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/jumping-for-voles

I’ve seen a pair of kestrels at Crown Hill Park the last couple of weeks – they hunt right along the backcountry trail and hover just feet in front of me at times.

I brought the dog and the camera (’cause I never see anything there without the dog) to look for kestrels, and of course saw no kestrels, but we did run into coyotes.

This is my favorite little female coyote. She’s fairly calm but rarely lets me get too close, unless I have the dog with me (I think she has a crush on my dog). Unfortunately, my dog is 100+ pounds of muscle and enthusiasm, making photography while strapped to him somewhat difficult.

The weather was getting cloudy and windy, and the coyotes were out hunting before the weather gets too bad. She didn’t mind us following her as she hunted, and I was able to use a tree as a rest for the camera, but while doing that, my dog managed to pin me to the tree with the leash. After taking a few quick shots, she gobbled down her vole and trotted off, and the dog and I tried to figure out how to untangle ourselves.

Coyote (Canis Latrans)
Crown Hill Park, Wheat Ridge, CO
Sony a700
Sony 70-400
ISO 400, f/5.6, 400mm, 1/1250sec
Shot in RAW, processed in Lightroom & Nik Software Suite
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/jumping-for-voles Fri, 25 Mar 2011 21:18:00 GMT
Belushi Squirrel http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/belushi-squirrel

Out early to Sloan's Lake to see if I could find John's fox. No luck finding a fox, but I did find geese (as if THAT'S a challenge in Colorado) and a squirrel who was acting, well, squirrelly. He was behaving like a kid in Junior Gymnastics, with a series of clumsy roles and tumbles (think Belushi breaking into the Dean's office in Animal House). As I was getting closer for a better shot, the thought occurred to me that perhaps this wasn't Belushi reincarnated - may he was just rabid. Discretion being the better part of valor, I left him alone.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/belushi-squirrel Sun, 20 Mar 2011 10:06:00 GMT
DANCES WITH MOUNTAIN GOATS http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/dances-with-mountain-goats

I have to confess to a long-standing affection for mountain goats.  Back in the day, when I was more actively backpacking & climbing, I’d often take a lunch break (and sometimes a little nap) after particularly grueling uphill sections above tree-line in the Colorado Rockies.  It was not uncommon to find myself joined by small groups of mountain goats during those respites.  They had little fear of humans; the adults would quietly graze around me and the kids would play, sometimes almost stepping on me, actually standing on my pack, and at times running into me.  Those are fond memories.

I suppose it’s natural that with a new (or rather re-newed) avocation of photography, usually wildlife, that I’m drawn back to mountain goats.  I usually dread the start of summer – the heat, the bugs, the throngs of people flooding my favorite outdoor areas – but summer is also the time I get to visit my alpine critters and re-establish connections made every summer.   

You can find mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) in the western mountain ranges of North America.  They’re primarily an alpine and sub-alpine species, most often found above tree-line in the Summer, and below tree-line (sometimes at sea-level for coastal goats in the Cascades) when there is no food available at higher elevations during other seasons.

The mountain goat is amazingly well adapted to its environment.  Their hooves are separated by an interdigital cleft that allows the hooves to vary its shape adapting to rocky terrain, and have a soft but grippy pad that extends beyond the hard, cornified hoof.  As Junior Johnson says, that gives them plenty of “gription,” allowing them to climbs rocky & snowy slopes in excess of 60 degrees.  They have well-developed dewclaws on the back of each foot that also prevents slipping.  Mountain goats can frequently be seen running up or down steep slopes, using tiny outcroppings to maneuver. 

It’s sometimes tough to spot mountain goats – their white coat blends in well with snowy terrain.  And not only does it blend well, it’s amazingly protective.  It’s estimated that it can keep them warm in temps as low as -50F (-46C) in winds as strong as 100mph (161kph).   By the time late Spring/early Summer rolls around, their thick coats are looking a bit dull and ratty; on the positive side, the color of their coat at this time is around 18% gray, making accurate exposures a snap.  Their coats shed through Summer, and close to the end of Summer, most of the major shedding is over and they have fresh, white coats.
Males (Billies) associate with females only during the mating season, usually December to January, and otherwise fall into bachelor groups.  The Females (Nannies) also group together for safety and rearing the young (Kids).  Kids are usually born late May to mid-June.  Yearlings usually remain with the mother at least until their second year – at that point, Billies will usually joining a bachelor group and Nannies may remain in the same family group.

Nannies can be very competitive for food resources.  This results in frequent display and posturing, usually with  ears lowered and head pushed forward showing off their horns – this kind of display is usually sufficient to prevent actual aggression.  Billies can be aggressive during breeding season, with injuries and even death resulting from aggressive behavior.

Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats share the same habitat and diet, and interact passively with each other most of the time.  Mountain Goat kids and Bighorn lambs sometimes play together.  Whenever there is any dispute between the two species, Bighorns are quick to get out of the way of the more aggressive Mountain Goats.  I’ve seen two young Kids (less than a year old) chase an adult Bighorn away from a mineral lick.

Mountain Goats are herbivores, with a diet of grasses and alpine plans, and even lichen (goats like licking lichen . . .).  They can have 6-7 feeding & resting cycles in the course of a day, with peaks in the early morning and late afternoon during Summers.  I can find Mountain Goats near the summit of Mt Evans between 8 and 10am most Summer mornings.  Because alpine plants are not rich in minerals, Mountain Goats (and Bighorns, to a lesser extent) must supplement their diets by licking salts & minerals from the rocks.
The Mountain Goats on Mt Evans are used to people, and generally don’t see us as a threat.  It’s possible to be very close to goats as they graze.  Despite their relaxed behavior, do not  try to pet one – they are wild animals.  Nannies with Kids will react very aggressively to protect their young – you do not want to be between a bleating Kid and its mother.  The Kids are very curious and don’t seem to mind approaching people to check them out, but they can also be easily spooked by sudden movements or loud speech.  Momma doesn’t like it when they get spooked.

My default wildlife lens is a 300mm f/2.8.  Most of the time, that’s plenty of focal length, and at times, too much focal length.  I carry a second body with a 24-70mm f/2.8 for those close shots.  I see other photographers with different gear – most commonly a 70-200mm f/2.8, usually handheld, and 600mm f/4 on a big tripod.  The 600mm is too much lens most of the time.  The 70-200mm is a good compromise and probably the most versatile lens.

I always use a tripod.  It slows be down a little, but also provides much sharper photos and gives me an opportunity to be a little more mindful in my compositions.  With fingers numb from the cold & wind, it keeps me from fumbling and possibly dropping my gear, too.

I generally shoot wide open, with the widest aperture I have available to me.  Between the bright sun, snowy reflections, and wide apertures, I can get fast shutter speeds, which helps freeze action.  Fast enough so that fur caught on the tip of a horn, blowing in a strong wind, is frozen in time, no blurring.  With lots of snow at elevation, I usually crank down exposure to       -1EV (give or take 1/3 stop) to prevent blown highlights.  The snow also acts like a giant reflector, so no worries about shadows most of the time.  On bright days without clouds, I use a polarizer.  Check the Histogram for blinkies indicating you’ve blown out highlights.

Keep in mind, even in the Summer, it’s cold at 14,000ft.  Long pants, warm jackets, gloves and hats are mandatory.  It doesn’t matter how great the photographic opportunities are if you’re cold and miserable and bail after five minutes.  Chemical hand warmers can be a lifesaver.   Drink lots of water.  The better hydrated you are, the better you’ll be able to fight off altitude sickness.  I down at least a liter on the way up, and have another liter while I’m on top, then another liter on the drive back home. 

Don’t plan on editing your photos the same day you’re at altitude.  Unless you’re used to the altitude, you’ll probably be too loopy to do a good job of editing your photos.  Take a nap instead, and edit your photos the next day.

jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/dances-with-mountain-goats Sun, 13 Mar 2011 12:27:00 GMT
Snapshot Photography vs. Mindful Photography http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/snapshot-photography-vs-mindful

The dictionary defines a snapshot (in the context of photography) as “a photograph that is “shot” spontaneously and quickly, most often without artistic or journalistic intent”. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A snapshot may allow you to quickly capture a scene or a subject that might otherwise be missed. That’s OK for capturing a memory or a moment. Snapshots can capture and convey great sentimentality.

Is it bad to take snapshots or be a snapshooter? Not at all. To each his own. If snapshots work for you, more power to you.

But to me (and many other photographers), snapshot can be a pejorative term, synonymous with bad lighting, bad composition, bad focus, and bad point of view.

If you want to improve your photography, take your images to the next level, or get more pleasing results from your photography, maybe it’s time that you move from snapshot photography to mindful photography.

Mindfulness is simply being observant, attentive, careful, deliberate, focused (so to speak) in the moment. Mindful photography (hmmmmm, maybe I should coin that phrase – consider it registered until otherwise notified).

Mindful photography, then, is a state of awareness that allows you to focus on the photographic process, not just pushing the shutter button.

When I run Mindfulness groups, one of the recommendations I make is for folks to slow down a little. Make everyday chores an exercise in Mindfulness. When you do the dishes, do them 3 times slower than you usually would – stay in the moment and focus on the process, not the outcome. When vacuuming, again, do it 3 times slower than you normally would – notice what’s going on while you do it.

When you slow things down a bit, will you miss some photos? Sure you will. You’ll no doubt have fewer photos that are poorly composed. You may have fewer out of focus photos. You’ll have fewer photos with feet, noses, antlers, and tails cut off. Maybe fewer photos of animal butts (not judging – if that’s your thing, fine).

Equipment (with 1 exception) is not an issue in Mindful photography – doesn’t matter if you’re using a disposable camera or the latest DSLR. It’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer and the photographic process. A Mindful photographer will generally get better images with a disposable camera than a snapshooter will get with the latest DSLR. It’s the photographer and the process, not the gear.

The one gear exception? I bet some of you can already guess what it is. A tripod. Yes, they’re heavy and cumbersome and unwieldy and generally a big pain in the butt – and frequently hideously expensive. And they’re worth every bit of inconvenience in the field. There’s no better way to slow yourself down than using a tripod for every shot you take. A cheap tripod (that will at least hold the weight of your gear) is better than no tripod.

I know, I know – I can hear the anguished cries now. “I hate tripods,” “I’ll never use a tripod,” “You must be some Gitzo shill.” But consider this:

By using a tripod, you can more mindfully consider composition. You can find the best light. You can position the camera/lens for the best angle for your subject. Your keeper rate will go up. Your backgrounds will be cleaner and less cluttered. And your images will be much sharper.

One more trait of the Mindful photographer: knowing when to not take a picture. The light is poor. The background is just too cluttered. There’s just too much stuff in the way. I won’t take the picture. I’ll come back another day, I’ll try a different position. And I’ll get the photo I want, not the one I had to settle for.

So, is it wrong, then to take a snapshot? Nah, digital film is cheap. There’s nothing wrong with it. But maybe you can slow down a little – consider the light, the composition, the point of view, and wait a few seconds (or minutes) before you push the shutter button. Do a little experiment and monitor how your photography changes.

Here’s to Mindfulness.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/snapshot-photography-vs-mindful Sun, 13 Mar 2011 11:54:00 GMT
WHAT NOT TO WEAR – OUTSIDE http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/what-not-to-wear-outside

As I write this, it’s early-ish November, about 35F/2C outside, with a lovely rain/snow/slush drizzling down – perfect hypothermia weather! I stepped outside this morning, close to sunrise, tripod and 2 camera bags hanging off me and decided quickly, “The heck with this.” Well, those weren’t my exact words, but you catch my meaning. Neither of the subjects on my list for this weekend (foxes and coyotes) would be out in this weather anyway (being much smarter than me), but a thought did occur to me as I was wrestling my gear back inside: maybe a little review of how to stay warm and dry while you’re out photographing might make an decent article.
I’ve been backpacking and mountaineering since I was a teen, and in that time learned a little about staying warm and dry in the backcountry. As nature photographers, we often find ourselves out in nasty conditions, and if we’re better prepared for whatever conditions we face, the better we can practice our craft, and the more likely it is that we’ll return safely from our excursions, with great images to boot.
Let’s start out with a review of how we lose body heat – once we understand that, the better prepared we’ll be to retain it. There are five ways we lose heat:
1. Conduction
2. Convection
3. Evaporation
4. Radiation
5. Respiration

Conduction is when we directly transfer heat from one object to another. If you sit down in the snow for any period of time, the snow conducts the heat away from your body. It’s hard for your body to create enough heat to keep your backside warm as the snow is conducting the heat away to quickly to compensate.
Convection is losing heat to air or liquid flowing around an object. A convection oven speeds cooking times by circulating hot air around an object. Convective heat loss uses cold air (the wind) the same way. That’s where the wind chill factor comes in – wind makes you feel colder since it’s blowing your body heat away.
Evaporation is liquid being converted into a gas. In the summer, evaporative cooling can be a good thing; the sweat evaporates from your body and cools you off. In colder temps, this same process can rob you of body heat.
Radiation is not a super-power. Heat is a form of energy, and it radiates away from your body. We can see this energy radiating away if we use a night-vision scope or actually do have the ability to see the infrared spectrum as a super-power.
Respiration occurs as part of breathing – when we exhale, we lose heat in our breath. When you see your breath when it’s cold out, that’s because our breath is warmer than the surrounding air and the water vapor condenses. Breathing heavily (snowshoeing uphill, for instance) increases heat loss due to respiration.
Hypothermia is the enemy. Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when one’s body temperature falls below the level required to operate safely, or the body is unable generate enough heat to maintain a core body temperature. Hypothermia is not just a risk during frigid winters – it happens most often in temps between 40-50F/4-10C. We’re not going to go into much detail about hypothermia here except to say that we want to prevent it through proper clothing.
Now that we understand a little better how we lose heat, let’s figure out some ways to retain that heat. You’ve probably heard that dressing is layers is a good idea, and it is. Keep in mind that no clothing system (with a couple of exceptions that we’ll cover later) generates heat, it only retains the heat you’re able to generate. Dressing in layers give us the ability to fine tune our clothing system to not only stay warm and dry, but to prevent overheating as well. Remember, if we’re uncomfortably hot or cold when outside, we’ve failed as Uber-Nature Photographers.
How We Retain Heat
The first rule in dressing for cold weather success is NO COTTON! (I’ll wait for your horrified gasps to die down before I continue). Cotton is often referred to as “Death Cloth” by experienced outdoors folks. Why no cotton? Cotton is hydrophilic (it loves water). It absorbs water (sweat or any other liquid) and holds it against your skin. Cotton is great for towels because of this, but not so great for staying warm and dry outdoors. If you can keep it dry, this may not be that big of a deal. But that may be a big “if.” If it rains, if you sweat a lot, if you manage to get wet, the cotton soaks up the water and holds it against your body. If you’ve ever walked into an air conditioned room while wearing a wet bathing suit, you know the kind of chill you get. The longer you wear wet clothes during cold weather, the harder it is to maintain body heat and the more susceptible you are to hypothermia. POP QUIZ: Which of the five ways do you lose heat this way? You’ll find the answer at the end. Bottom line: Leave the jeans and cotton undies at home when you’re out in nasty weather.
Base Layer
The first layer of clothing for cold weather is a base layer. In anything other than arctic conditions, this is usually a light layer. The purpose of a base layer is not to provide warmth necessarily, but to transport sweat away from your body. The secret to maintaining body heat is to keep your skin warm and dry. Having to heat that water next to your skin takes a lot of energy and cools you down quickly. Dry skin is warm skin, and warm skin is happy skin. When a good base layer absorbs sweat (or any other moisture), it’s going to pull it away from your skin, spread that moisture out so it can either disperse it quickly (if it’s the only thing between you and the air), or move it along to the next layer (the mid layer or shell) so it can be dispersed that way. Good layers always move the moisture away from you so that it gets out as soon as possible.
My two base layer favorites are a one-piece suit made of lightweight polyester (no gaps between the pants and shirt), and pieces made from merino wool. Merino wool is not the old- scratchy kind of wool. It’s very soft, comfortable, and doesn’t smell. If you wear your base layer more than a few days in a row, microbes are going to start growing and start to stink. Polyester is infamous for stinking quickly. Merino wool, on the other hand, is relatively stink-resistant; something to consider for long trips. Any of the modern technical base layers are going to perform well. Find something on sale at any of the big outdoor chains (REI, EMS, MEC) and you’ll do fine.
Mid Layer
The mid layer is for warmth. It doesn’t provide warmth, but it traps dead air and your body heats that to provide warmth. The colder it is, the more dead air you need to trap. There are lots of options of a mid layer. Since my wife gets cold easily, she uses a mid layer as her base layer (a 1 piece Farmer John suit of PowerStretch material) that still pulls moisture away but provides more insulation and warmth.
One of the more popular options for mid layers is polyester fleece. It comes in many weights and thicknesses, doesn’t absorb moisture, and can help you stay warm even if you do get wet. For colder temps, down or synthetic fills provide lots of dead air space for warmth. An advantage of down is that it’s very light and compressible for the warmth it provides. I have a lightweight down jacket that provides lots of warmth, but the jacket itself weighs less than 8 ounces and packs down to the size of my fist, and I can carry it in even the smallest pack I carry. On the down side (pun always intended), if down gets wet or even damp, it collapses and loses its insulating properties. Synthetic fills also provides lots of warmth. They’re heavier and don’t compress as well for storage, but they allow you to retain warmth even if they get wet.
Since I’m usually wandering around when I photograph, I stay active enough that a light shell, moderate mid layer, and sometimes a base layer are enough to keep me warm and dry. In really cold temps and when I’m sitting in the same place for a long time (trying to ambush coyotes in January, for instance), I’ll wear my usual layers but put on a thick down jacket for when I stop and camp out with the tripod. It’s too warm for walking around (and I’ll get too sweaty too), but when I stop moving, the extra insulation really helps.
The shell is the outermost layer of your system. Shells provide protection from wind and moisture. In mild conditions with no wind or precipitation, a fleece jacket might be all you need for a mid layer and shell. And even if the morning starts out mild, conditions may change rapidly. I just never seem to be out in mild conditions. Always bring an appropriate shell for the conditions you’re likely to face.
There are two approaches to shells, called the hard shell and the soft shell. The hard shell is the traditional waterproof and windproof jacket and pants – something like a rain jacket. Before the advent of Gore-Tex, jackets were waterproof and windproof, but they breathed about as well as a plastic garbage bag (which is to say, not at all). Gore-Tex and its descendants changed that, and allowed the fabric to keep out water from the outside but allowed vapor from inside to escape, keeping you from steaming in your own juices. Hard shells provide the best protection in the rain, but they tend to be stiff and noisy.
Soft shells take a different approach. They’re designed to breath much better at the cost of water-proofness. They’re best described as water-resistant, not water-proof, but they breath much better and are much more comfortable and quiet. The heat your body produces pushes moisture out of the fabric, and you stay dry in anything less than a moderate to heavy rain.
You not only need to keep your core warm, you’ve got to protect your extremities as well (head, hands, feet). The ancient Greeks used to think that our brain wasn’t for thinking, but rather that it was a big radiator – and they weren’t too far off. I’ve heard estimates that we lose between 10 and 90 percent of our body heat through our head, and the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes.
An old adage goes, if you’re cold, put on a hat. A hat is a crucial piece of cold weather gear. My favorites are a windproof fleece hat that covers my ears, and in really brutal conditions, a windproof balaclava. I’ve also found neck gaiters to be extremely warm and versatile pieces that seal the gap between jacket and hat. If I start to overheat, the hat is the first thing I take off.
If you can’t keep your hands warm, you won’t be taking many photos, and it’ll be hard to just hold a heavy camera and lens. I’m still struggling to find a glove/mitten that keeps my hands warm but allows me to operate camera controls. I’m currently using a pair of REI convertible mittens; they have the fingers exposed about half way, but have a mitten section that flips up to cover the fingers. I can even squirm my index finger out by itself to hit the shutter button. So far, so good, but I haven’t hit temps much below freezing yet. Moose Peterson usually uses cross-country ski gloves effectively. I have photography friends who swear by chemical heating packets they slip into their gloves for extra warmth.
Your legs generally stay much warmer than your core and generally require fewer layers to keep them warm. Here in Colorado, the weather can change drastically very quickly. I keep enough gear in my car to survive the next Ice Age, so I can usually adapt quickly to any weather conditions. There’s always a pair of pants and fresh wool socks in a chest in the trunk, and I carry a light wind layer, a rain shell, and an insulating layer as well. Then there are the hats, gloves, mittens, goggles, snowshoes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters, trekking poles . . .
Being warm, dry, and comfortable takes the focus away from ourselves and allows us to focus on our photography subject instead. Dressing for Outdoor success is more than taking images – it could be a matter of life or death.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/what-not-to-wear-outside Sat, 12 Mar 2011 14:43:00 GMT
Reprocessing Images http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/reprocessing-images

I'm a fan of Nik software - I'm using the Complete Collection for Lightroom.  I made this image a year ago, and really liked the result in LR2, but decided to reprocess in LR3 and Nik software (mostly Color Efex Pro and Viveza), and, WOW, what a difference.

I'm a fan of Nik.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2011/3/reprocessing-images Wed, 09 Mar 2011 17:22:00 GMT
Gratitude http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/12/gratitude

©Jay Ryser

Last year, early on a cold, snowy Christmas morning, before the rest of the family was even considering getting out of their beds, I snuck out of my warm house and went to my favorite area for photographing red foxes.  Like many other folks, I really wasn't feeling the Christmas Spirit, and going to visit some of my favorite photography subjects was a welcome relief.
The park where I photograph foxes is only a few miles from my house, and I'm blessed to live in Colorado, so close to so much beauty.  My little park has been described as being second only to Yellowstone National Park in terms of foxes to photograph and I spend at least one day every weekend, Fall through Spring, photographing foxes.
Last Christmas morning, I had a very special experience.  I found the alpha male fox napping in the snow outside his den.  When I first spotted him, he ducked back into his den, but after a few minutes, he hopped back out and resumed his napping, with me 20 feet away, happily taking some gorgeous images.

In the years that I've visited the park, there have been some drastic changes.  The longtime locals tell me that not too long ago, there were more than three dozen foxes in the park.  Because it's a popular park in the middle of an urban area, the foxes are habituated to people (being fed by some people also helps with that, too).  Unfortunately, the fox population has been on the decline, for a number of reasons.  Coyotes have moved into the park, and they've killed or forced out many of the foxes; foxes are competition for food.
I've been fortunate to know several generations of foxes.  During my first year in the park, I got to know the then-alpha male fox, Pock, very well.  He was easy to identify due to his light colored coat and squinty left eye.  He was also the most active fox in the park, and I'd run into him frequently in different areas of the park.  He was also a bold little guy.  I witnessed him standing up to a coyote three times his size.  He didn't mind passing me on the back trails as long as I gave him a little room.  One morning I caught him going through my camera pack when my back was turned.  He was no longer a youngster, but was very much the top fox in the park.  He was shot in a senseless act of violence about 2 years ago, a huge loss to the park and many other photographers.  

My favorite fox in the park was the alpha female.  While Pock was always busy and on the move, she was very calm and deliberate.  She never seemed too concerned about things and went about her business as I followed from a short distance.  She'd hunt for voles and squirrels, groom, and nap, and almost seemed to enjoy posing for photographers.   She was hit by a car and killed about a year and a half ago.  As difficult as Pock's death was, hers was much more difficult for me.

More recently, I became very fond of the new alpha male, known to the locals as Grumpy.  He was the beta male when I first noticed him, but it became quickly obvious that he had his sights on the alpha male position.  I'd see him increasingly challenge Pock (never aggressively), and in a bold political move, apparently became the father to the batch of kits with the alpha female who had been Pock's mate.  I never saw the kits that year but frequently saw him taking food to the den (the only time foxes ever share food).

Another new favorite was a vixen the locals called Scarface, for obvious reasons.  She had a significant scar across her muzzle, attributed to surviving a coyote attack.  As long as I'd known her, she'd been very shy, and would rarely stay in the open for very long.  After the deaths of the previous alpha pair, she became the mate to Grumpy, the new alpha male.  She gradually became more relaxed and would spend more time in the open.  Her nickname of Scarface evolved into just Scarf.

In the Spring of 2010, according to long-time locals who were very familiar with the foxes, the population had gone from literally dozens to now only four remaining in the park.  Many photographers and locals hoped that Grumpy and Scarf would produce a new litter of kits to help repopulate the park, but to the best of my knowledge, no kits were ever seen.
I've returned to the park half a dozen times starting in the Fall, but have yet to see a fox.  The locals I've spoken to report they haven't seen foxes in some time.  One person reported he found a dead fox (he was not familiar enough with individual foxes to confirm the identity of the fox, but given the location, it was likely either Grumpy or Scarf).  To make matters worse, mange has apparently been making the rounds, further decimating the fox population.
This park and its resident foxes used to be a huge part of my life, Fall through Spring, and it was rare to not see a fox - in fact, I frequently would see three or four every visit, and at times be blessed to spend 10 to 20 minutes with a fox at fairly short range as they went about their business - as long as I didn't get too close or make too much noise, I was allowed to become part of their world. 
My last trip to find foxes was Christmas morning; what was a very special experience a year ago is now a very sad one.  It could be that since we haven't had any snow so far, the grass is just too tall to see any foxes, or that my timing has just been off, but I fear the worst; all my foxes are dead, either from coyotes, or mange, or senseless acts of violence.  At best, some may have relocated to other areas.
I'll probably never again have such easy access to such cooperative little wildlife models.   The reason I do wildlife photography (over macro or landscape) is the connection with my subjects, and I felt a strong connection with these subjects.  
In a season when I should be thankful for what I have, I find myself being thankful for what I used to have. 

jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/12/gratitude Wed, 29 Dec 2010 11:30:00 GMT
Dialogue with a Pika http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/10/dialogue-with-pika-jay-ryser-fall-is-on

Dialogue with a Pika
Jay Ryser

Fall is on its way.  It's not only evident by the aspen leaves turning gold, but the alpine tundra turning a glorious shade of red.  The change from Summer to Fall signals a change of wildlife subjects from my favorite alpine animals (pikas, marmots, and mountain goats) to the rutting elk.  Winter comes fast to the alpine zone; my favorite pika lives close to the summit of Mt Evans (right around 14,000ft), part of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, just west of Denver, and my access to him ends just after Labor Day.  That's OK - I have elk and other animals in the Fall, but I miss the pikas terribly over the 8 months or so that I can't visit them.
This year, the elk rut is moving along pretty slowly.  Everyone has their own theories as to why it's slow (warmer than usual Fall, culling 1,400 elk earlier this year has too radically reduced the population, we offended the ungulate gods, bad karma), but there's just not a lot of action.  Plus, RMNP has put up fences across almost every square foot of the park, making it difficult to get clean backgrounds on the elk images it is possible to make.

My plan?  Take Trail Ridge Road in RMNP and search for pikas until the first snows hide them away until next Summer.  I have a new favorite spot along Trail Ridge where pikas are plentiful and easily accessed.  Most rangers don't have a problem with me sneaking out into the talus in search of pikas, but friends have been stopped at that location and told they can't be out there.  It's worth it to take your chances and hope you have an understanding ranger.
I had a little Tiny Tim flashback the last time I was there . . .
    Tiptoe through the talus
    With a tripod for a pika
    Oh tiptoe through the talus
    With me

I catch myself humming along to that tune at times, hopping from rock to rock, searching for a good place to set up my gear (I get a little loopy above tree line sometimes, in case you couldn't tell).
I just can't get enough of pikas.  They're fist-sized little animals, closely related to rabbits, who live among the rocks.  Since they don't hibernate, they spend their short summers gathering food to last them the winter.  A six-ounce pika can gather in excess of 50 pounds of food.  To gather that much, their days are filled with running from their underground dens, yanking out mouthfuls of plants and flowers, and running back to their dens, all at super-sonic speeds.  because they move so quickly, and because they're the same color as surrounding rocks, and because they're so small, it's tricky to even spot them, much less get a clear image of them.

If you find a good location, plant yourself and spend a few hours just watching them; they're endlessly fascinating little animals.  When you first arrive, they tend to hide and observe you until they're sure you're not a threat.  Despite living in loose colonies, they tend to be very territorial, even with other pikas, and will bark out a warning.  You'll hear a surprisingly loud EEENK!, and be able to locate them by their barks.  Give them a while to adjust to your presence, they eventually they'll mostly ignore you and go about their business of gathering food.
I'd spent about half an hour sitting on a relatively flat rock (my butt doesn't tolerate sharp, pointy rocks like it used to, despite the extra padding I've managed to add), when I noticed a pika keeping an eye on me.  As soon as I made eye contact, he belted out a challenge, letting me know I was in his little kingdom.  "EEENK!!"  With that, he ran from his perch and ran past me, returning quickly with a mouth full of food, less than a few feet from my position.  As soon as he emerged from his den, he ran back to the rock where he perched before and barked at me again.  "EEENK!!" 
He ran past me several more times, gathering food.  He then disappeared for a while.  Just when I was about to leave, he came running right up to me and sniffed my tripod foot.  Then he started to chew on my tripod.
"Hey!  Stop that!"
(chew, chew)
"Really, stop that" (moving my foot slowly towards him to shoo him away (pun always intended)
"Don't you EEENK at me - stop chewing on my tripod!"
He then started to chew on the sole of my shoe.  I tried to get the camera off the tripod so I could get an angle for a shot, and as soon as I got it in position, he ran off.  He passed by my location several more times carrying food, and barking out an occasional "EEENK!!"   from his high perch.  Just before the wind got too bad and my butt got too sore, he ran back to my position, hopped on my shoe, and let out another EEENK, and ran off again.

jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/10/dialogue-with-pika-jay-ryser-fall-is-on Sun, 03 Oct 2010 17:11:00 GMT
<no title> http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/6/fox-kit-quest-jay-ryser-i-like-projects

The Fox Kit Quest
©Jay Ryser

I like projects; they help keep me focused (pun always intended).  One of the reasons I like projects is that I like to keep working a subject, get to know a species of animal and even develop (again, pun always intended) a photographic relationship with specific animals that I visit again and again.  I've used this approach with pikas, marmots, coyotes, mountain goats, and red foxes (and if you've been to my site, you know I have way too many red fox images).
A project, though, is something you can putz around with.  I realized what I was ultimately engaged in was a Quest.  Not to make my humble efforts sound too noble (I'm trying to make images of fox kits, not finding the Holy Grail, after all), but my simple project turned into a seemingly mythic undertaking, involving long hours of searching, many miles of travel, investigating every lead I could glean from other photographers, and much frustration.  I even had ants crawling on me from time to time; I don't let ants crawl on me unless it's for something serious.  I'll try to downplay the mythic elements from this point on.

I'm fortunate to live a few miles away from one of the prime red fox locations in North America (second only to Yellowstone), which gives me plenty of opportunity Fall through Spring to catch up with foxes and get plenty of images at the same time.  Foxes in this park are fairly habituated to humans, and overall tend to be much less avoidant than foxes in remote areas.  I've  been able to develop an ongoing relationship with multiple generations of foxes in the area, witnessed drastic changes in politics of this little fox world, watched the results of a huge windstorm and it's devastating results on the park the foxes call home, and even indirectly experienced the deaths of the longstanding alpha male and female foxes in that area.  Coyotes have moved into the park and either killed or driven off many foxes. The population of foxes has gone from dozens to now only four.
During this time, each Spring I've devoted significant time to photographing fox kits, and each Spring, I've been frustrated by my inability to even find fox kits, much less photograph them.   It was time to get serious about photographing fox kits

During the three years I've been photographing these foxes, I've been desperately seeking fox kits.  In my area (Colorado), mating occurs in January or February, with a gestation period of around 52 days.  Most litters average 5 kits who weigh about 150 grams (about 5.5 ounces) at birth, and tripling their weight by day ten.    The young (or kits) first open their eyes at about two weeks, take their first peek out of the den at five weeks, and are usually fully weaned at ten weeks.
The male fox will bring food to the female as she cares for the kits in the den (and this is the only time foxes are known to share food), and he may or may not have other kit rearing responsibilities.  The parents usually keep the kits in the birth den for the first few weeks unless they have significant reason to move them (larger predators, too many people, etc.), and can move den sites every 2-3 weeks if needed.
Although fully weaned at ten weeks, the kits are not ready to fully separate from their parents.  They may wander short distances away from the den but rarely go too far.  At 12 weeks, they begin to explore their parents territories during daylight hours, venturing out further and further.  By September or October, the young males will begin to disperse and find their own territories.  Young females will disperse later, with some staying with the mother for the next year, helping with raising a new litter of kits the next year.

My first year seeking fox kits, I hung out with other photographers more knowledgeable than I regarding kits.  Many weekend mornings were spent in a semi-circle of photographers, most of us in camping chairs, tripod mounted lenses aimed at one of the den entrances, remote releases in hand.  Sometimes we chatted, sometimes we listened to our iPods, sometimes we napped.  Despite the weekends and weekdays taken off work, never did I see a fox kit that year.  Fortunately, my fellow photographers kept me "updated" on kit sightings: "Five minutes after you left the kits came out," "Oh, you missed it, they were out for an hour, playing around," "The kits found a tricycle and were riding it around for half an hour," "The kits took down a bull moose right after you left."  Photographers and comedians.
The next year, no one had seen fox kits.  I wandered the park, from end to end, checking out known den sites from previous years and investigating possible new den sites.  Any new hole in the ground was investigated.  There were reports of kit sightings at what was thought to be the birth den, then no sightings at all; locals believed they had moved the den.  I again devoted most of my free time to finding fox kits (or, according to my wife, I spent the Spring staring at a hole in the ground).  After spending way too much time in a fruitless search for fox kits, I decided to take a day off to chase coyotes (one of my other  photography projects).  It was the day after a Spring snow storm, and I had a very productive day, including a particularly cooperative (for a coyote) subject.  I was pleased with the images I made.  It was later in the day that I discovered that others had found fox kits at the park - the one day I took off was the day they appeared, playing in the fresh snow.  I returned to the park with renewed enthusiasm; there were kits there, and I was going to get images.  Except I didn't; I never saw fox kits.
After missing out on fox kits 2 years in a row, I was determined to get fox kits this year.  My new motto was "I'm getting fox kits this year, dammit!" (My old motto was "Hey, you got any more of those Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif bars?", so this was a step in the right direction).

I returned in earnest to my favorite fox location for Spring fox kits.  I knew well the male and female foxes that were in the area.  The new alpha male is another bold little guy; the new alpha female is quite a bit more reserved and shy.  They were using an old concrete drainage system as a den, with a central hub and several buried pipes leading to exits in different directions.  This concrete drainage system has the advantage of being immune to coyote interference; the coyotes are too big to fit any of the openings and they're unable to dig out the den (as they've apparently done before with other den sites).
Despite frequent trips to the park and devoting weekends and vacation days to locating kits, I saw nothing.  I made sure to stay in contact with many of the long time locals in the park, sharing information and observations and trying to find some indication of fox kits.  This year, no one had seen any fox kits.  There were several different theories: the couple hadn't birthed any kits this year; the den site had been moved; they're just cautious parents and haven't brought them out yet; they were born late in the season due to the cold winter.  Everyone had an opinion, just no facts.
I met some other professional photographers in my quest.  I'd been in contact with Lori Huff on Facebook, and she and Weldon Lee joined me and some friends one morning looking for kits.  We got nice images of adult foxes, but no kits.  I ran into Rob Palmer on several occasions, and Michael Mauro once.
It became obvious that if I wanted fox kits this year (and I was getting fox kits this year, dammit!), that I needed other options.  Photographers can sometimes be a little tight-lipped about their locations, and locations of active fox dens seemed to be a well guarded secret.  I investigated any rumors of active dens I could discover, taking me to Roxborough State Park, Evergreen, and a field behind a cat rescue in Lakewood, among other locations in Colorado.  I searched my own neighborhood for the pair of resident foxes without success.  I used any contacts on Facebook that I could find, seeking hints about fox dens with kits.

Fortunately, another photographer friend, Kurt Bowman, caught my Fox Kit Fever, and joined me in my QUEST FOR KITS (it's a mythic thing, so of course I had to put in bold caps . . . yeah, I know I was going to downplay the mythic element, but I'm on a roll here).  He pursued any lead he could find over at NPN until he got our first break.  Bob Karcz knew of 2 dens in Summit County and offered to show us around.  While there, we got to see osprey building a nest and a pair of bald eagles and 2 eaglets in the nest, but no fox kits.  One den was assumed empty now, and another we only had vague clues to investigate.
The one den we did see had lots of signs of habitation, just no kits.  We had to take the vague clues we had for the other den, do a little scouting around until we found the most likely location candidate.  We got an early start to get the best light and the best chance of seeing kits.  The secret location for this fox den?  Next to a hardware store in the middle of town.
We turned the corner just before sunrise, and what did we see?  Seven (count 'em, 7) fox kits out playing.  One of them was black!  I was afraid they'd see us and bolt, never to be seen again.  Instead, they seemed to take little notice of us and continued to play.  The first part of the QUEST FOR FOX (yeah, I slipped again) kits was complete - I found fox kits.  Now it was time for the final part of the QUEST; making images.

Being in town, the den left some things to be desired, aesthetically.  One side was a grassy knoll sprinkled with aspens - not bad.  The den itself was nothing more than piled up dirt with a couple of holes.  On the back and to the right, chain link fence.  To top it off, the kits apparently made of hobby of dragging over every little piece of trash they could find as chew toys; the den was covered with plastic shopping bags, fast food cups, and bottles.  These were urban foxes.
I admit it - when I first set up the tripod and camera, I went a little nuts.  The shutter was firing like a machine gun.  Kurt, my co-quest conspirator, quipped, "Relax, dude, they aren't going anywhere."  I'm surprised I heard him - I was giggling like a maniac.  I filled up 24 gigabytes with images and went through a battery in 10 minutes.  Few of those first images turned out well.  Fortunately, I was able to relax a little after that and focus (again . . .) on getting some more mindful images.
It took some work to isolate the kits from their not-so-photogenic surroundings.  The grassy aspen knoll caught the morning sun beautifully, but the kits rarely played there.  They were quite content in the dirt, against the chain link fence.  Every once in a while they'd venture to the grass, and quickly back to the dirt.
Man of the kits would crawl under the fence on their way to an abandoned house across the lot; there was a den dug underneath the house, but the kits would also venture inside through cinder blocks and up the stairs to holes in the roof.    The open field separating the dens seemed like an ideal location to catch kits playing, but they rarely used the field for anything other than an expressway between the dens.

Being urban foxes, they were obviously habituated to people.  I'm usually very sensitive to any signs of stress in animals.  The kits showed very little concern with our presence, sometimes even approaching us very closely in their play.  I figured if any of the foxes would have a problem with us hanging around, it would be Momma Fox.  The first day, she didn't really mind us there.  Early the second morning, Momma Fox showed up early, barked out a warning, and the kits scattered - for about 2 minutes.  After that, they emerged from the den ready to play.  That same day, Momma Fox was sitting about six feet away from me as we both watched the kits playing.  From that point on, Momma Fox didn't take much notice of us.
Apparently, some of the locals did notice us around the den and called the police.  An officer showed up voicing their concerns.  Again, the photographers I associate with are all very sensitive to signs of stress in wildlife, and quickly back off if there's any indication we're causing problems, particularly if we're dealing with any of their young.  The fact that Momma Fox was bringing live voles to the kits for them to practice their hunting skills right in front of us convinced her that we weren't causing any undue stress to the parents, and before leaving us to our photography, informed us of a few additional den sites in the area.
Lesson: always talk to the locals if you want the best information.

As mentioned, one of the kits was pure black, except for the white tip of her tail.  We found out from a local that one of the parents was pure black as well.  Black foxes are a melanistic variation of red foxes known as Silver Foxes.  Some are a silver gray, some a grayish black, and some are just pure black.  We finally saw Daddy Fox in the evenings, when he'd make brief appearances - he was pure black with a white tipped tail, just like the one kit.
Like any youngsters, the kits tired easily.  About 60% of the time, they'd nap, with their backs to us, on the dirt of the den mound (not the most aesthetically pleasing images I've ever made).  30% of the time, they'd retire inside the den during the warmest hours, and 10% of the time, they'd play. 
Momma fox and a yearling female would take kits off in pairs to practice hunting, and would disappear behind buildings and under fences, sometimes for hours, leaving the remaining kits untended.

We used a variety of equipment.  All photographers used tripods the majority of the time.  The most often used lenses were 300mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4s, with a 70-200 f/2.8 and a 70-400 thrown in for good measure.  The most important piece of gear used?  A good chair.  Because foxes are such tiny little guys, and fox kits are even smaller, a good chair lets you get close to the action and helps you make images from near eye level.  Shoot from too high an angle, and you're taking snap shots.  Shoot from eye level with these little guys and you're viewing them and their world from their perspective.  Don't bother extending the legs on the tripod.  And because the kits napped so much, having a chair keeps you comfortable on the scene until the next round of action.
Great effort was needed to cope with the busy back grounds and harsh light we usually experienced.  The fence to the East also tended to cast some ugly shadows across the den.  With effort, we could usually isolate kits alone and with their siblings on the grassy knoll.  Some minor cloning was required to remove bits of trash.
Mornings has plenty of light, but we also decided to return in the evenings to not only get some warm late light but also to get some images against the abandoned building for a little color and texture.  Not the most natural backgrounds, but much nicer than chain link fencing.

This was an undertaking that took three years to complete.  I had to finally cross the Continental Divide to find fox kits.  In the process I drove hundreds of miles, spent hundreds of hours in the field, and gathered any rumors of fox den locations from anyone willing to talk to me.  Did I mention I had ants crawling on me?  I had ants crawling on me.  Was it worth it?  Rarely in my life have I had this feeling of satisfaction, of having hard work pay off.  It's been said before, but it's true - if you want to learn patience and perseverance, become a wildlife photographer.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/6/fox-kit-quest-jay-ryser-i-like-projects Sun, 13 Jun 2010 19:00:00 GMT
<no title> http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/4/i-just-posted-image-spring-foxhttpwww

I just posted the image Spring Fox today, but I didn't post _the rest of the story_.

As I mentioned before, I'm getting images of fox kits this year, dammit.  Every Spring for the last few years I've devoted significant chunks of time to finding and photographing fox kits.  I know where the foxes are (as evidenced by waaaaaay too many fox images), I even know where the den sites are.  The fox parents are reasonably comfortable with my presence.  And I spend waaaaay too much time there in the pursuit of fox kits.  But despite all that, I've never seen a fox kit there.

I've come close.  Last year, I devoted 1 day away from the Fox Kit Project to photograph coyotes, and it seemed like "everyone else":http://www.redbubble.com/people/kcline78/art/2936031-2-i-didnt-do-it-mom-i-swear but me got fox kits.  I've almost literally camped out near fox dens.  I've seen parent foxes coming and going, but I've never seen the kits myself.

I'm prepared this year.  I take a camping stool with me so I can comfortably hang out by the den site (just _standing_ around is for rookies).  And this morning, I was out (again) before the sun, had my camping chair set up behind the tripod, and I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And got bored.  And waited.

Maybe they had moved den sites.  That's something they often do, and maybe the reason I hadn't seen the parents much recently was because they moved the kits to a new den site.  so I wandered to the field to the east, to check out another den site that's been active in the past.  When I got there, I ran into another photographer friend, Dan Walters  (a very talented wildlife photographer), who had seen nothing on the east side, and we walked a ways, both of us looking for fox kits.  He decided to keep hiking to the west, hoping to see hawks in the nest, and I wandered back to the east (because I'm getting fox kit images this year, dammit).

I set up my stool and tripod, and waited.  It was a great day for images too - the overcast sky diffused the light, the grass was a vibrant green.  And I saw nothing.

Eventually, I heard movement in the underbrush!  My heart skipped a beat, and I scanned the surrounding area.  Movement - I focused the lens in and saw . . . whitetail deer.  Three of them.  There are lots of mule deer in Colorado, few whitetails.  I'd never seen deer in the park, although others had seen some before.  As they wandered away from me, I noticed Dan had returned, and we passed again.  He'd seen no foxes either.

I decided to check out the original den site again on my way back to the car.  I wasn't expecting to see anything, so it was a genuine surprise when I rounded a corner and saw the daddy fox curled up outside the den.  Maybe he'd bring the kits out today!

I set up my stool and tripod, and got a few decent images of him.  He's a pretty calm little guy, and doesn't mind me hanging out as long as I keep my distance.  As I've mentioned before , I sometimes talk to my wildlife subjects (and discovered that many other wildlife photographers do the same).  "Hi there - it's good to finally run into you today.  Gonna bring the kits out sometime soon?"  I took a few more images as the light was gorgeous and the grass made for a beautiful background.

He abruptly stood up and starred at something.  A dog walker was approaching on the nearby trail.  He watched them for a moment and apparently felt threatened enough that he went trotting by me, no more than 6 feet away, turned, and went up a ridge.  As he trotted by, I remarked, "Hey!  You're coming back soon, right?  'Cause I've been out here all morning and this is the first I've seen of you in days . . ."

It was right about that time I noticed that someone was on the trail just behind and to the right of me, standing there, watching me.

"Were you . . .  just talking to that fox?"
"Uh, yeah . . ."
Long pause
"Does the, uh . . . fox . . . ever . . . talk back to you?"

I should point out at this point that I'm a licensed mental health clinician.  My one Super Power (yeah, I know it's not a *REAL* Super Power, but it's as close as I'm likely going to get, barring some bizarre lab accident, so bear with me) is being able to place folks on a Mental Health Hold when their condition warrants it.  I quickly recognized that I'm the one usually on the other end of these kind of conversations.

"Um, no, not usually . . . "
"Oh . . . OK . . . bye"

And with that, she turned and quickly went back down the trail the way she'd come.

Personally, I think talking to foxes helps me stay sane.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/4/i-just-posted-image-spring-foxhttpwww Sat, 17 Apr 2010 18:51:00 GMT
<no title> http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/4/making-metadata-fun-jay-ryser-ok-maybe

Making Metadata Fun
©Jay Ryser

OK, maybe "fun" isn't the right adjective.  How about "profitable"?  I have gigabytes and gigabytes of images that I've accumulated over the years, ranging from the early days of digital captures through the images from this morning.  And I wasn't too careful about file naming, keywording, and file management in the early days.  At first, that wasn't a big deal; if I needed a specific image, I'd just scroll through the file manager until I found the image I needed.  But the more images I created, the harder it was to find specific files.  I needed a better way of tagging images so I could easily find specific images.

The solution?  Metadata.  What's metadata?  Looking at the root of the word (if you want to be nerdy), it means roughly "information about the information."  It includes EXIF information (camera, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, flash, etc.) and can also include my copyright and contact information.  It also lets me store information about each image so that I can easily narrow down search parameters and find images easily.

If I'm looking for an image of a bull elk bugling, BINGO, there they are.  I've got hundreds of those images.  But let's say I need one of a bull elk at RMNP bugling with its breath condensing as it bugles - again, BINGO.  No scrolling through hundreds of bull elk images for the ones I want - there they are.  Is it a big pain in the butt upfront?  Yes, it is, but it's worth it in the long run.

The really great thing is that it doesn't just benefit me, directly, it benefits me indirectly too.  If I upload images to a stock agency, it allows the potential client to quickly and effectively find the image they're seeking very quickly.  If they find MY images that are well keyworded instead of some other photographers images that are NOT well keyworded, I get the sale.  The better I keyword, the more money I make.
Here's what I do.  First, I use a file naming system for my RAW files (and I only shoot in RAW), including:
1. My initials (JRR)
2. Date
3. Main Subject
I do this in Lightroom, so it's easy to include all this information as I'm importing images for processing.  My RAW files are saved and look like "JRR-04042010-redfox.dng" (I convert to Adobe's DNG format as part of my workflow).  I use a similar system in naming file folders in Windows.

Keywords are adjectives to describe the image that's embedded in each file.  I can add keywords to files as I import them into Lightroom.  Then, as I process each file, I add specific data about the shot.  If I have a pika yawning, that goes into the keywording, for instance.   Doesn't that take forever to do that with every image file, you ask?  Not really; most of the information is added when I first import files.  The more specific data is only entered for keepers.

Speaking of keepers, I notice that, despite the relatively cheap price of storage, I'm more picky about the images I save.  Today, I took 497 RAW files, and after processing, whittled that down to 24 files that I actually processed and saved.  Were the other 473 images too bad to save?  Not really.  I immediately delete the ones with obvious flaws - eyes closed, out of focus, foot or tail cut off, weird expression, distracting background (that makes up maybe 10% of the images), then I go through and evaluate similar images - some are almost identical, some have minor variances in expression (eye contact, direction of gaze, ears back or forward); no need to keep identical images, so I pick the best and delete the rest.

When I keyword, I like to imagine what an image buyer might be looking for when seeking images, and what kind of terms they might use to find appropriate images that fir their criteria.  This is a "more is better" approach; it costs nothing (but a little time upfront).  The more thorough I am in keywording images, the higher the hit ratio is when someone does a search.

I have a certain collection of keywords that I like to apply to images as I work.  Many are abbreviations.

Keyword Options
1. Species (common name-"red fox" & Latin binomial-"vulpes vulpes")
2. Location (Rocky Mountain National Park-"RMNP", Crown Hill Park-"CHP", Roxborough State Park-"Rox", etc.)
3. Behavior (yawn, yawning, eat, eating, rutting, mating, display, fight, fighting, bugle, bugling, run, running, hide, hiding)
4. Weather (snow, rain, sunshine, overcast, fog, etc.)
5. Season (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter)
6. Orientation (landscape "L", portrait-"P")
7. Interaction/Relationship (mother-child, mother-baby, father-baby, father-babies, mate, mates, baby, babies, young)
8. Conservation status (endangered-"E", climate change, global warming, etc.)
9. Miscellaneous (wild-"W", captive-"C", zoo-"Z", domestic-"D", "no people", "no HOM", "no hand of man", "man made")

Get in the habit of using metadata to your benefit, and your image management will be worlds simpler, for you and for your clients.  A little effort pays big dividends.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/4/making-metadata-fun-jay-ryser-ok-maybe Sun, 04 Apr 2010 19:53:00 GMT
What's YOUR Photographic Vision? http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/2/whats-your-photographic-vision

©Jay Ryser

Photography is a visual medium (yes, I've been told I sometimes have a firm grasp on the obvious, but bear with me).  The term photography is literally translated as Writing With Light.  I'm guessing that most, if not all photographers, at a basic level, capture images to document events and experiences, and as a way of sharing those experiences with others.  That's not complicated - anyone with a camera phone, Polaroid, or disposable camera can do that.  I'm talking about taking your images to the next level by clearly defining your Photographic Vision.

What do I mean by a vision?  What is it that I want to capture?  This goes beyond documentary photography _("I saw a mountain goat - here's the proof")_ to something that I hope is a little more personal and maybe even a little more artistic.  Since I do primarily wildlife photography, my vision is to capture something unique about each individual animal that I photograph - something that makes that specific animal unique, an individual, among others in its community.  I don't want an image of a generic red fox, for instance, I want to capture the essence or personality of this specific animal, what makes it unique among other foxes, for instance.  That's what drives me, what pulls me out of bed on frigid winter mornings, again and again.  I don't always accomplish my vision, but it is the driving force behind what I do and why I do it.

Just that's my vision and what I want to capture doesn't mean it will work for you or should be your vision.  I know and work with lots of great photographers.  My father in law is a retired professional photographer.  But each one of us has a unique, idiosyncratic vision of what we're trying to capture in an image.  When we define our vision, it makes us more mindful in our approach to making an image and capturing the image that we want.

Since I'm back into doing images for a stock agency, I have a very general vision in mind whenever I make images that I plan to submit.  They have to be:
well exposed
clean (no cluttered back or fore grounds, no Hand of Man)
To do that, I almost always use a tripod and a big gimbal head to get the sharpest images possible, I check the histogram regularly, I'm very aware of my camera settings.

You can't execute your vision with the camera on Automatic, making the decisions for you. 

That's my basic vision whenever I shoot something that might have commercial potential, and I think the basis for any kind of decent nature photography (IMHO).  Once I have the basics established, it's time to refine things a little more to see what I really want in an image.

What, then, is my actual Photographic Vision?  Well, in no particular order:
My primary goal is a connection with the animal (since I usually do wildlife), and that generally means eye contact with great light.  I don't just mean the animal is looking in my direction - I mean I want to be able to see the animals world reflected back at me in the eye.  When I edit the image, I want to zoom in and literally see the reflection of the scene (sometimes even with me in it) there in the eyes.  It may not be visible at a size viewed on the web or even a small print, but it's there and may come across in a big print.  there has to be great light to achieve this (more on that later).  That's the connection I want, and that I want to present.  If I have just black, dead, shark-eyes, I don't consider it a really successful image.
I want great light.  My preference is for early morning light for its color, direction, and quality.  I want that warm gold or red color that sets off animal fur beautifully, and that catch light in their eyes.  It also reduces harsh shadows and illuminates fore and backgrounds with that magic light.  I have to get up early in the morning (you might say I'm an early Ryser - pun always intended) to get a head start on the sun and the wildlife, but it's worth it.  I'm always surprised when I see folks arriving when I'm on my way home after a successful morning of wildlife photography.  Plan for the light and arrange your schedule to capture it.  Follow the light.

Dynamic is usually better than static.  I have a virtual ton of documentary shots of animals (the shots that document that you saw an animal, shots that could be put in Wikipedia or a textbook to show the animal in an accurate way).  That was OK when I was first starting out, but now I want more.  I want behavior, I want action, I want something a little different to set my images apart.  That takes patience and some understanding of the subject.  I'll use pikas as an example.  They're very cute little critters, but they're almost always on the move, they blend in well with their environment, and they're more likely to be hears than seen.  Initially, just finding pikas and getting an occasional shot was enough.  Now that I had the basics covered, I wanted action.  I have to find pikas (first of all), and plant myself in a location where I have good light, and be prepared to catch the action.  When I do that, I can catch them gathering food for the winter, barking out a warning, or even stretching & yawning.    That's the image I want, and that's how I'm hoping to set my images apart and capture something a little different (and hopefully make them more marketable in the process).

Personality.   This might be partly covered by behavior shots, but I'm also looking to capture personality whenever I can.  My vision here is to find something that sets this particular animal apart from his or her peers.  What makes this animal unique and individual.  The old alpha male fox, Pock, was great - fearless, bold - a real character.  I tried to capture his boldness whenever I could.  His mate, the alpha female was calm and relaxed and seemed to project this, and made her great at doing portraits.  Sadly, neither fox is with us anymore, making the time I spent trying to capture images even more special to me, and hopefully I was successful in preserving a little of what made each a unique personality.

Shoot from eye level.  I find myself shooting from a lower and lower Point of View (POV), in an attempt to catch the animal at their eye level.  The closer I can get to their eye level, the more I'm able to present an accurate representation of their world.  For foxes, I now never extend the tripod legs so I'm more on their level.  Someone recently commented that my fox images seemed to be getting better, and I think that's part of the reason why.  For mega-fauna (elk, bison, etc.), I'll crank the tripod all the way up to keep up to their eye level, but for everything else, the tripod goes lower and lower.  To facilitate that, I'm using a pair of knee pads that I got at Lowes for less than $30, and they're a great investment and reminder to get down (and sometimes even look funky).
Simplify and Isolate.   I got this mantra from Brad Hill and try to practice it whenever possible.  Basically, I try to isolate the subject(s) from the background and simplify the composition as much as possible.  I shoot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority mode, usually close to wide open, so I can isolate the subject(s) from the background and simplify the composition as much as possible.    When I do that, I'm much more pleased with my images.

That's a quick summary of my Photographic Vision.  I'm very mindful of what I'm trying to achieve in my images and try to stick closely to my vision when I shoot.  It's not meant to work for everyone, it's just what works for me.  I don't expect anyone to follow my photographic vision, but to define and incorporate their own vision for what they want from their images.

What is it you want from your images?  What's YOUR Photographic Vision?
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/2/whats-your-photographic-vision Sun, 28 Feb 2010 11:25:00 GMT
Facing http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/1/facing_24

There’s been no new snow and such high temps in January that it took some work to get this guy with a snowy background that’s a little cleaner (and a wide open aperture helps too).
I was out with a friend that I frequently run into while I’m looking for coyotes and foxes. We’d briefly seen Scarface, the little female that resides in the den we were close to, but she was too bashful to come out of the brush, so we never got a shot of her.
This is the alpha male again. He trotted by us several times on his morning rounds – too close to fit all of him in the frame. The weather was a little overcast, which was perfect at diffusing the light.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
City Park, Wheat Ridge, CO
Sony a700
Sigma 300/f/2.8
Jobu gimbal, Giottos tripod
ISO 400, 1/250, f/2.8, +2/3EV
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/1/facing_24 Sun, 24 Jan 2010 18:01:00 GMT
Mindful http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/1/mindful

Same red fox, the new alpha male, from Christmas morning.

He’s taking a brief nap just outside his den. The temperature is about 12F/-11C, but he seems warm and comfy in his winter coat, snoozing in the snow.

Despite napping, he’s very aware of what’s going on around him. With his eyes closed, his ears would rotate around to pick up tiny sounds, most of which I couldn’t hear. From time to time he’d open his eyes and survey his surroundings, ignoring me for the most part.

Some minor cropping, and the background was cleaned up just a bit.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
City Park, Wheat Ridge, CO
Sony a700
Sigma 300/f/2.8
Jobu gimbal, Giottos tripod

ISO 320, 1/1250, f/2.8, +2/3EV
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) vulpes vulpes rocky mountains red fox colorado canid wildlife predator http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2010/1/mindful Tue, 05 Jan 2010 19:52:00 GMT
My Holiday Blessing http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2009/12/blessing

My Holiday Blessing
©Jay Ryser

It’s the day after Christmas as I write this, but the event happened yesterday, Christmas Day. I wanted to write all this down, as soon as possible, as it’s fresh in my memory. And if you don’t mind, allow me to ramble just a bit – this is nature photography-related. I always have mixed feelings about Christmas; at one level, there’s the holiday spirit that seems to wane a bit more each passing year. I don’t dislike Christmas or anything it represents, but everything around it seems to suck the joy out of the holiday (buying things, shipping things, standing in one line, then another – I got to spend two delightful hours of my life, that I’ll never get back, in the post office a couple of days before Christmas, and I still have a bunch of items I’ve not been able to ship yet). Fortunately, I’ve been MALL-FREE SINCE 2003™ (yeah, that’s right – I trade-marked it). Usually by the time Christmas rolls around, I’m exhausted and not particularly in a holiday mood. Not in actual Grinch-mode, just blah (my preferred term is weltschmerz, but so few folks are familiar with that term, I just use blah instead).

In my aforementioned blah mood, I stole out of the house very early on a frigid, snowy Christmas morning, the family still snug in their beds, to seek out foxes. Foxes are a tonic for me, and spending time with them has a very soothing effect. My little fox hole is a wonderful place, with many foxes that are pretty habituated to the presence of people, but that doesn’t mean they’re always around or always cooperative. If you’ve kept up with some of my previous posts, you’ll know that there have been some huge changes in that park, including the loss of two of my favorite foxes. I won’t go too much into detail about that, except to acknowledge their loss as part of my weltschmerz. It’s only recently that the park and its residents have seemed to mostly recover from those changes.

It was still before sunrise when I arrived at the parking lot and set up my gear. I saw two other people who I greeted briefly (both, surprisingly, in a more blah mood than me, it seemed), and quickly started down the icy trail, tripod and gear over my shoulder just as the first rays of the sun broke the horizon. It was cold enough that the snow squeaked loudly under my shoes – I wasn’t going to be sneaking up on anything that morning. The sky was mostly clear, and the woods were bathed in a warm, golden light. Twenty meters from the parking lot and I was alone in a Winter Wonderland. I had to cross two wooden foot bridges on my way to my usual spot – a crossroad on the back trails. I’m usually fairly cautious crossing these – I had a spill near another of these a couple of years ago that nearly tossed me headfirst into the creek that runs through the park – and the bridges are frequently icy.

As I turned a corner on the trail, I noticed a fox curled up just outside the drainage system he uses as a den. It was the previous beta, now alpha male of the little area. He spotted me and quickly slunk into the den, disappearing from view. “Of course,” I thought. I went ahead and set up the tripod nearby, hoping he’d emerge from the den at some point so I could get a few images. I do like to take red fox images in the snow – their fur is puffy and contrasts beautifully with the snow this time of year.

He poked his head out a few minutes later. I wasn’t expecting too much from him. When he was still a beta male, he was very camera shy. He’s a good looking fox – classically handsome in a fox-way – but always camera shy and prone to hiding in the brush as the beta. It’s not unusual for me to talk to my subjects in as soothing voice as I’m able to muster; most of the time it doesn’t cause them to flee, and sometimes it even works to make them a little more relaxed. “It’s just me – I’m harmless. Just go about your business and I’ll stand over here and stay out of your way.” To my great surprise and delight, he hopped out of the den and sat by the den entrance. Then he curled up and took a little nap. He wasn’t completely asleep, as every time I made a small noise, or something else happened, one or both ears would rotate around in the direction of whatever noise caught his attention. He quickly adjusted to the sound of the shutter firing, and after the first few shots, he didn’t even bother turning his ears towards me at all.

For about half an hour, he napped, stretched, and quietly sat by the den, with me firing off images 10-15 yards away. The sun hadn’t quite crested the ridge, so he was still in very soft light the entire time we were together. Sufficiently rested, he stood up, stretched again, and slowly trotted off. I had filled an 8gb card by that time. “Thank you, and have a Merry Christmas!!” He turned around for a quick glance, and disappeared up the ridge and out of sight. At that moment, I was more relaxed and at peace than I can recall being in a very long time.

This was a blessing, a very special moment. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas gift, and I don’t mean the photo opportunity (although that was wonderful, too). I do mean being given the opportunity to spend a brief period of time in the presence of one of God’s wild creatures, who seemed very relaxed in my presence, to be able to share a moment in time, and maybe even be able to share a slight connection among another living, thinking, feeling being.

Peace on Earth, Good Will to All Living Things
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2009/12/blessing Mon, 28 Dec 2009 16:50:00 GMT
LIFE (AND DEATH) IN THE TALUS FIELD http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2009/7/life-and-death-in-talus-field

©Jay Ryser www.jayryser.com
Wildlife, Landscape, and Nature Photography Online Magazine

To the casual observer, a talus field is a large jumble of oddly-shaped rocks that have collected at the base of a mountain slope. To anyone who has ever tried to ascend or descend a talus slope, particularly while wearing a heavy pack, it’s a dangerous area where one misstep on a poorly balanced rock can pitch you dangerously into a world of hurt. It’s slow going, and treacherous footing – most people and many animals avoid talus field when they can.

Talus is another word for scree – a collection of broken rock fragments that have broken away from a higher cliff or mountain slope as a result of weathering and erosion. Talus can range in size from golf ball-sized stones to chunks of rock the size of VW Beetles. Technically, scree is smaller than talus, ranging in size from gravel to small stones. Because of the irregular size of the rock fragments, there can be quite a bit of space between the rocks, making talus slopes an ideal home for a variety of small animals.

The alpine zone (mountainous regions above tree-line), is a unique ecosystem characterized by intense weather conditions, a very brief Summer growing season, hardy vegetation, and animals with specialized survival skills. Many talus fields are found in the alpine zone. Two of those species of animals with specialized survival skills happen to be two of my favorite animals – pikas and marmots.
American Pikas (Ochotona princeps) and Yellow-Bellied Marmots (Marmota flaviventris) are two of the more common species inhabiting the talus field, and two species highly adapted to this extreme environment.

Marmots are essentially high-altitude ground hogs. The name marmot comes from French marmotte, from Old French marmotan, marmontaine, from Old Franco-Provençal, from Low Latin mures montani “mountain mouse”, from Latin mures monti, from Classical Latin mures alpini “Alps mouse”. Marmots are also called “whistle pigs,” “rock chuck,” and my favorite nickname, “brake-line chewers.” In North America, marmots inhabit mountainous terrain in the western ranges, including the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Other varieties of marmots can be found in similar locales in Europe and Asia.

I have not always been so kindly disposed to marmots. In my younger and more adventurous days, I’ve had ropes and harnesses chewed upon during alpine bivvies, and once very nearly rappelled using a nearly chewed-through rope. I’ve even been known to chase a marmot with an ice ax, without good intentions, after catching one chewing through my pack. Since that time we’ve managed to put aside some of our old conflicts and have actually become quite chummy. How can you stay mad at something so cute?

Marmots get the nickname “whistle pig” from their habit of whistling, hooting, or squeaking out a warning to their neighbors if predators are present. Marmots therefore have the reputation as being one of the few truly altruistic species on the planet – they keep themselves in danger to warn their peers. Marmots are also apparently Mormons (or LDS, if you prefer). One dominant male can share a burrow with 3, 4, or more females, and breed with all of them. Marmots are very skilled burrowers, and can construct a complex system of rooms and tunnels under the talus, including toilet areas, dining rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms.

To survive the long, cold alpine winters, marmots hibernate for 6-8 or months out of the year. Each summer (and at their altitude, it’s a very brief summer), they must almost double their body weight. Much of their day is devoted to eating, and they have a varied diet. Marmots are usually vegetarians, consuming alpine grasses, leaves, and flowers, gut also eat fruits (when they can find them), grasshoppers, and even bird eggs. Full grown marmots weigh between 6 and 12 pounds (2.7-5.5 kilograms).

Marmots have several behaviors that set them apart from other mammals. To protect their young, marmot parents whistle, hoot, and squeak, and run back and forth to distract predators as their young flee to safety (another way they are considered altruistic). My favorite behavior is the Helicopter-Tail. When they sense danger, while fleeing, their tails spin around in a circular pattern- it sometimes appears like they’re getting an extra boost in speed with the propeller action of their tail. And while they’re running, they’re hooting and whistling, but honestly, in my head I hear Nya-aaa-aa, wooob-woob-woob-woob.

Pikas are very close in appearance to large hamsters, but are actually more closely related to rabbits and hares. They’re often referred to as “rock rabbits.” They’re small animals, only about 6-8inches in length (160-220mm) and weigh about 6 ounces (170grams).

Unlike their marmot neighbors, pikas are awake and active over the winter months. To survive during the coldest months under the rocks and snow, pikas must gather enough food during their brief summers to last them through the winter. To do this, pikas devote a sizeable portion of every day to gathering food (grasses, leaves, flowers, thistles, etc.). The process for this is for the pika to run out in their talus field and gather mouthfuls of vegetation and pile it into tiny little hay bales to dry in the sun. Once the vegetation is dried, they bring it into their underground burrow for storage. Despite weighing only about 6 ounces themselves, they must gather in excess of 50 pounds of food to last the long alpine winter. It’s not uncommon for pikas to try to steal little hay bales from other neighboring pikas – when they’re caught, a loud argument usually ensues. These arguments are sometimes exploited by nearby predators.

Pikas live in small communities, but unlike their neighboring marmots, they tend to be solitary except for mating season. Pikas seem to have three speeds during the summer. The first is to perch themselves on a rock outcropping to survey their surroundings. They can be absolutely still during these times (presumably to prevent detection from raptors and other predators. The second is to move at blindingly fast speeds through the talus field, going out in search of and returning with mouthfuls of vegetation for processing and storage. because they blend in so well with their environment, they can be exceptionally tough to spot and track. Lastly, they disappear for long periods of time into their burrows in the talus, and may not emerge for minutes to hours later.

Pikas do share another trait with marmots. When they spot a predator or potential danger (or if you get too close to their little hay bales), they emit a surprisingly loud “EEENK.” They also keep themselves in harm’s way to alert their neighbors. It’s more common to hear pikas than see them.

Pikas have special adaptation to like at high altitude. They have very thick, dense fur means they stay warm in frigid temps and high winds, but it also means they can’t dissipate heat quickly or effectively, making them prone to overheating in warmer temps. About the only place not covered in thick fur is their eyes. Even their toes and the end of their nose is covered with fur. Their ears are short and round and lay almost flat against their skull, presenting the least area to the cold. When perched on a rock, they tuck their feet almost all the way under their bodies and bunch their shoulders around their short neck in an effort to conserve heat.

Both marmots and pikas are common (at least for now) in alpine regions of western North America. It’s easiest to spot marmot near roads and trails as the sun themselves on a warm rock or sit upright to survey their environment. Pikas are much more difficult to spot, in part because of their small size, their coloring, their speed, and their ability to look just like a rock when perched motionless on a rock outcropping. You’re much more likely to hear a pika than see one. Patience is rewarded, as both species are very curious and will check out visitors (from a distance) to their realm.

I find the best times to photograph marmots and pikas is summers, from dawn until mid morning. On very cold mornings (below freezing t mid 40’sF), marmots may be slow in getting out of their burrows and may wait for the sun to warm rocks. During the mid part of the day, marmots seems to nap, and may become active again in the late afternoons to close to sunset. Pikas seem to be busy most of the day, with three primary activities – perched on a rock, maniacally gathering, drying, and storing food, and hidden away in their burrows for long periods of time.

Because both species are smart and curious, sometimes the best photo strategies is to locate an area where you can hear marmot whistles and pika squeaks, and set you gear there quietly, and wait. Marmots are much easier to spot. They can approach quit closely at times when they don’t feel threatened. Pikas are much more difficult to spot. It’s not unusual to just see movement out of the corner of your eye as they run between the rocks. Spend some time and get to know your pika – they tend to have established routes and follow those routes most of the time. Instead of trying to track them with a long lens, pre-focus on a spot that you’ve observed them perch on, and when they resume their perch, hit the shutter. The more time you spend, the more familiar you’ll become with the routes and their habits. My favorite pika, Larry the Pika, has a routine that’s well known to me, and I can usually get fairly close and have memorized most of his favorite perches, allowing me to get set up and wait for my shots.

Since both species live anywhere from 8,000 to 14,000+ feet, dress appropriately. You may need to spend hours in the talus field waiting on your subjects. They have specialized fur to keep them warm and protected from the wind, and if all you have is a T-shirt and shorts, your photo safari will be over very quickly. And while you’re at altitude, wear a broad-brimmed hat and wear sunscreen. Your skin will thank you in the coming decades.

My usual set-up for capturing images is a DSLR and a telephoto lens, usually a 300mm f/2.8 with a variety of teleconverters. I use a tripod and gimbal head for practically every image I shoot. Without a tripod, I stand little chance of getting images of tiny little pikas that don’t look like a potato in a pile of rocks. I shoot close to wide open using a large aperture (f/2.8-5.6) to limit DOF and make the subject stand out from the background (in this case, similarly sized and colored rocks). There’s usually plenty of light, so low ISOs are the norm. Because of the plentiful sunlight, I sometimes add a polarizing filter to reduce glare and help prevent blown highlights from snow and light colored rocks – losing a couple of stops still gives me shutter speeds in the 1/1,000-2,000 range – plenty fast to freeze action.

Pikas, and marmots to a lesser extent, are considered at risk species due to climate change and global warming. They live on what is essentially a cold island. They are unable to migrate to different locations, as doing so would require them to cross long stretches of excessively hot ground. Their only alternative is to climb higher and higher up the mountain, and there’s only so much mountain to climb. Most pikas spend their entire lives in a half-mile radius. It’s estimated that pikas cannot survive in temps higher than 75F for more than a few hours.

Anecdotally, 8-9 years ago I rarely saw coyotes much above 12,000ft on Mt Evans, but now I see them regularly above 14,000ft, presumably pursuing their prey (marmots and pikas) as they continue to move up the mountain to escape climbing temperatures.
jayryser@gmail.com (Jay Ryser Wildlife & Nature Photography) http://www.jayryser.com/blog/2009/7/life-and-death-in-talus-field Thu, 16 Jul 2009 13:09:00 GMT