Photo of the Week – October 7, 2016

Mule deer in Cherry County, Nebraska.
Mule deer in the Sandhills of Cherry County, Nebraska.  Read below for the story of how I ended up with this photo.

I have very few photos of deer.  Clarification: I have very few GOOD photos of deer.  I suppose that’s because I’ve never actually gone looking for deer photos. Instead, I try to photograph deer opportunistically as I’m out looking for more interesting things like stink bugs or purple poppy mallow flowers.

Because of that, most of my deer photos are of the rear ends of deer running away from me.  I suppose that if I walked around with my telephoto lens on all the time, I might have a few more good deer images.  There have been numerous times when I’ve spooked a deer out of tall grass or other cover and watched it run ten or twenty yards, turn to look at me briefly (NOW!  TAKE THE PICTURE NOW!) and then sprint out of sight.  If I’d been ready, I might have gotten a few decent shots from those opportunities.  But no.  My lens for wandering through the prairie is my macro lens, or less often, my wide angle lens to try to capture prairie scenics.

This is a more typical deer photo for me. I walked over the crest of a hill and came across this one. I ducked back down and switched lenses, but only managed one quick shot of the buck before it ran off.
This is a more typical deer photo for me. I walked over the crest of a hill and came across this one. I ducked back down and switched lenses, but only managed one quick shot of the buck as it turned to run away.

While in the Nebraska Sandhills this summer, I got several opportunities for wildlife photos that I didn’t really earn – other than by being there, which is no small thing.  On separate occasions, I got really close to a prairie dog and a red-tailed hawk and ended up with very nice images of both.  A mule deer doe gave me a third opportunity during a June trip to the Sandhills.

I got up early in the morning, hoping for nice light.  After climbing to the top of a steep hill, I was rewarded by a fantastic sunrise.  Once the sunlight brightened a little, I spent time looking for yucca and other flowers to photograph, but didn’t find much that interested me.  As I was about ready to give up and head back down the hill for breakfast, I looked up and spotted a mule deer watching me from the top of the next hill.  I called good morning to her and she didn’t run away, so I replaced my macro lens with my telephoto and started a very slow approach.

I spent maybe ten minutes zig zagging back and forth across the space between us, pretending not to be at all interested in her, and she just watched me.  Whenever she would twitch nervously, I’d stop and examine a flower or blade of grass – just to make it clear I wasn’t stalking her.  Eventually, I got within about twenty yards and started taking photos.  During the next ten minutes she walked around a little bit, keeping a sharp eye on me, but she didn’t act like she felt threatened.  She finally moved downhill enough that she was out of the direct sunlight, and since I’d already gotten way more photos of her than I deserved, I wished her a good day and walked away.

A very accommodating mule deer.
A very accommodating mule deer.
The same mule deer.
The same mule deer, right before she walked out of the light.

I must have taken more than 100 photos of that doe during that ten minutes we spent close to each other.  It was hard to select just three for this post because nearly all of them were nice.  Good light, a tripod, and a subject that stands still and looks at you makes photography pretty easy.  A little luck doesn’t hurt either.

…It was a pretty disappointing morning for wildflower photos, though.

Photo of the Week – March 19, 2015

Proof that I’m a biologist:  While driving along a gravel road near our shop this week, I stopped and backed up to see if I’d seen a small snake or just a piece of debris in the road…

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.
A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

I’m glad I stopped.  It turned out to be a redbelly snake, a species found in only a few counties in Nebraska.  I think it’s the third one I’ve found in our Platte River Prairies, dating all the way back to when I was working out here as a graduate student in the early 1990’s.

Not a lot is known about the habits or habitats of redbelly snakes in Nebraska.  When I got home with some photos, I contacted herpetologist Dan Fogell to confirm the identity of the snake and learn more about it.  Rather than getting a lot of information from Dan, he instead peppered me with questions about where and when I found the snake because he’s trying hard to gather data and better understand the species.

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This was a big snake (for a redbelly). It was close to 11 inches in length, which is about the maximum size for this species.

 

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.
Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

This particular snake was on a gravel road between two crop fields when I happened upon it.  The road ditches were full of old matted-down smooth brome grass.  It didn’t seem like particularly friendly habitat for wildlife.  Was the snake living in those ditches?  Or traveling to other habitat?  There was a small woodlot a couple hundred yards away, and a stream across the cornfield to the north…  We released the snake where we found her, so whatever habitat she’s looking for, I hope she finds it.

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There are a lot of species we just don’t know much about – not just tiny invertebrates, but also relatively large (and beautiful!) vertebrates.  It’s another reminder of how important the collection of basic natural history information is.  Conservation is difficult, but even more so when we don’t even know much about the species and natural systems we’re working to conserve.

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see and admire this snake.  I hope my kids get the same chance.