Photo of the Week – August 31 2017

I’m not a wildlife photographer.  Wildlife photographers put in countless hours tracking, observing, and either stalking subjects or sitting in a blind.  I admire wildlife photographers but I don’t have the patience to be one.  Instead, I get my wildlife photos the easy way – by always (ALWAYS) carrying my camera when I’m in the field so that when I have a random close encounter with an animal, I’ve got a chance to take its picture.  This month, I’ve had three successful (and accidental) photographic encounters with mammalian wildlife species, and am sharing the results here.

Mule deer (in the rain) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Back in mid-August, I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data on flowering plants across various management treatments.  I’d gotten up early that morning and driven the 4+ hours up to Niobrara because the forecast said the rain would be ending in the early morning and it looked like a good day to be in the field.  Instead, it rained all day.  While I was driving my truck between sampling locations (in the rain) two mule deer flushed out of some brushy vegetation in front of me and turned to look at my truck.  The buck turned away again and took off over the hill, but the doe stayed behind to see what I was up to.  I rolled down the passenger side window of the truck, grabbed my camera from behind the seat, and took this photo.  I didn’t even get wet – did I mention it was raining?

A young porcupine at dusk – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Later the same day, it finally stopped raining, the sun came out, and both the landscape and I dried out a little before evening.  I wandered around with my camera until the photography light disappeared, and then hopped in my truck and headed back to headquarters.  As I was coming down the lane between the mailbox and the crew quarters, where I was staying, a young porcupine crossed the road in front of me and climbed up the embankment.  Other people had been seeing the same porcupine this summer, but though I’d seen its mom, this was the first time I’d seen the young one.  It was moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to grab my camera out the back seat of my truck, and instead just grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket as I climbed up the embankment to get a closer look.  The porcupine didn’t even pause or turn its head to look at me as it made its way to the top and then waddled off across the prairie toward a small patch of trees.  I squeezed off three shots with my phone camera and got one that was decent.

Black-tailed jackrabbit in the Platte River Prairies.

The final photo (and my favorite) comes from yesterday, when I was riding my ATV through our Platte River Prairies.  I was cruising along pretty slowly and flushed a jack rabbit.  That’s not unusual, but in this case, instead of popping up out of the grass and bounding off with its ears held high, the rabbit took two quick hops and then hunkered back down in the vegetation.  I stopped the ATV in surprise, and when I realized the rabbit had invested in its hiding strategy, I grabbed my camera from my bag and took a couple pictures of it through the grass.  Then I slid slowly off the seat of the 4-wheeler and took a few steps to get a better angle for the photo (above) I ended up liking the best.  After that, we just sat there, keeping an eye on each other, until I decided I had work to do and wished the rabbit a pleasant day.  As I started up the ATV motor, the rabbit finally decided to scamper off.

Maybe someday I’ll gain the patience and perseverance it takes to be a real wildlife photographer.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep my camera handy for those times when the wildlife decides to pose for me.

A Prickly Confrontation

While we were setting up timelapse cameras at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a couple weeks ago, I had an encounter with a creature I’d never seen up close before.  It was evening, and Jeff Dale was driving us down toward the river.  Suddenly, he hit the brakes and backed up, saying he’d seen something up in a tree – maybe a raccoon.  All three of us grabbed cameras and walked up the hill toward a small oak tree with a furry creature up in the branches.

A furry animal in a small bur oak tree.  The light was beautiful - as was the moon.

A furry animal in a small bur oak tree. The light was beautiful – as was the moon.

When we got closer, we realized it wasn’t a raccoon – it was a porcupine!  In my whole life, I’d seen a couple dead porcupines along the road, and a couple trees that had been worked over by porcupines, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a live porcupine before – they’re just not very common in my part of the state.

Once we figured out what it was, Jeff and David graciously let me approach the porcupine first.  (Thinking back now, they may have just been waiting to see if I got a face full of quills…)  The sun was on its way down and the light was beautiful.  I snapped a couple photos as I approached in case it took off, but the porcupine didn’t seem inclined to run, and before long, I ended up right at the base of the tree.  Because the tree was short, I could stand uphill and be at the same elevation as the porcupine.  Face to face, you might say.

However, it’s not accurate to say I was face to face with the porcupine because the porcupine was steadfastly looking away from me.  I suppose that’s the right defensive strategy when your weapons are on your backside, but it made photography kind of a challenge…  If I walked to south side of the tree, the porcupine would look north.  If I walked to the north side, it would look south.  It wasn’t moving quickly, but even if I ran to the other side, it would be looking away by the time I got there.

This was the only view of the porcupine I could get - no matter which side of the tree I was on.  It looked like maybe the tips of many of his quills had been singed off in the wildfire. (?)

This was the only view of the porcupine I could get – no matter which side of the tree I was on. It looked like maybe the tips of many of his quills had been singed off in last year’s wildfire. (?)

As you might imagine, Jeff and David thought this was mighty entertaining.  By this time, they’d sidled close enough that I could hear their chuckling.  I told David to make himself useful and come help.  I figured the porcupine couldn’t look away from both of us if we were on opposite sides of the tree.  I was right about that – it just looked away from ME.  David was apparently non-threatening, or at least less threatening than I was.  Maybe  that’s because it’s hard to seem threatening when you’re laughing as hard as David was.  While David and porcupine shared their little joke, I was still left facing the backside of my intended photo subject.

Here's David Weber conspiring with the porcupine.  You can tell by the grin on his face how badly he feels for me.

Here’s David Weber conspiring with the porcupine. You can tell by the grin on his face how bad he felt about the whole situation.

After a few more minutes of jocularity, the porcupine did eventually turn my way.  I’m not sure why – I suppose it probably figured I wasn’t going to leave it alone otherwise.  Of course, when it DID look at me, its face was in the shadow of a tree branch.  After all that trouble getting the porcupine to look in me in the face, I wasn’t going home with photos of a porcupine that looked like it had stripes on its face, so I called David into action again.  Trying (unsuccessfully) to stifle his chortling, David grabbed the end of the branch and swung it around a little so the porcupine’s face came out of the shadows.  …At which point, the porcupine looked back over at David and away from me.

By this point in the story, some of you are probably feeling sorry for the porcupine.  The poor thing had been sitting in a tree, just calmly chewing on a branch, when it was rudely accosted by a frustrated photographer and his two snickering friends.  Now, one of the snickerers was swinging its branch around.  Well, let me just say this:  of the four of us, the porcupine wasn’t the one showing signs of stress.  It seemed competely calm – content to play the straight man in the comedic sketch my companions were enjoying so much.

Finally, between David’s branch maneuvering and my persistence (stubbornness?) I did end up with a couple halfway decent shots of the front side of the porcupine.

You have to look really closely to see its self-satisfied smile…

photo 1

One decent photo, even with the shadow arcoss its face.


Can you see the smile?

See that smug look?