Archive for Malheur

Great Horned Owl Fledgling

Posted in Natural History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2015 by chamimage
A fledgeling great horned owl on a cottonwood tree limb in spring.

A fledgling great horned owl on a cottonwood tree limb in spring.

I checked in on these Great Horned owl fledglings last week at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. I do every year.

In fact, it occurred to me that I might have photographed at least one of the parents when they were babies, too, though it looks like their typical lifespan is thirteen years so maybe not. I’ve been coming back to this nest site for about five or six years.

Some years they are still in the nest at this time of year. This year they are all over the place and flying up into trees. This one was hyperactive, its sibling was sedate. I think the sibling may have been sick. It kept its left eye closed much of the time and rarely moved around. It did grab this one’s tail in his beak and give it a yank so wasn’t too sick for pranks.

This year the beavers built a dam and the place was flooded, limiting the sight lines for photograph. And most of the trees were girdled and some were down. Park staff said they were going to relocate the beavers and it appears they have already done so. This is an old homestead with one old building still standing and they wanted to preserve it.

This year too many people knew about this site. It has always been my little secret, but somebody must have found it and posted it on some birder’s site. I didn’t see it mentioned on the grease board for sightings at headquarters. When there were other cars here I just kept on going, not wanting to add to the stress to the birds. I did notice that they always started in this tree in the morning and by evening were either across the water or deeper into the woods, as if they were escaping the onslaught of birders. If park staff notice the activity here it will probably be off limits next year until the chicks are fully fledged.

I use my 600 mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter (1000 mm) when I photograph them to be able to keep my distance and they seem happy to go about their normal activity while I am there, with only the occasional withering gaze inherent to GH owls. I even saw one of the parents come in with a mouse. Of course this one immediately flew over for it and the sibling didn’t budge.

I saw a short-eared owl and a long-eared owl this year. I got only a badly focused photograph of the short-ear and blew it on the long-ear…twice.

The great horned nest at Page Springs campground was empty, which was a blessing because that blasted owl has kept me awake with her hooting more nights than I care to remember and it was blissfully quiet this year.


Malheur Trip

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by chamimage


Malheur National Wildlife Refuge does not give up its secrets easily, and last week was no exception. Like any wildlife location, you need to spend some time when you first arrive to do some scouting and network with locals to find out what is happening in the refuge. No matter how may times you’ve been to a place, every year is different, every day is different.

This year I went to Malheur (which means sorrow or misfortune, in French) a week earlier than usual due to the vagaries of my call schedule. I discovered that a week later than usual might have been a better choice. The migratory birds, such as the western tanagers and Bullock’s orioles,  had not arrived yet.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis

The first thing I noticed on arrival was that the white-faced ibis were not in the ranch pastures as they had always been in the past. I soon found that they were in the refuge in abundance, but due to low water levels they were dispersed to other areas with more standing water. I got some flight shots of them and the above image from the OO Ranch pond, but they were mostly inaccessible this year for photography. They even changed their roost location so the flight corridor in the evening was different.

Mountain Cottontail Rabbit Baby

Mountain Cottontail Rabbit Baby

I decided I would need to work the subjects I found a lot harder and not flit from here to there in an ADD fashion. That meant spending a lot of time with the babies on the grounds at the refuge headquarters. There are two adult Great Horned owls in this place so this was the only baby rabbit left of the litter, though I did find momma. Interestingly, she jumped up on a low rock fence for a while, but not long enough for me to get a photo other than of her butt right before she hopped back down again.

Ground Squirrle Baby

Ground Squirrel Baby

When the baby rabbit took a nap I turned to the ubiquitous baby ground squirrels. They did have brothers and sisters to play with and it was good comic relief to stop and watch them wrestle for a while. Like meercats, they are infinitely cutest when they stand on two legs.



On the way out to OO Ranch I got behind a herd of about twenty bulls. I imagine these must be rodeo stock. I’m not sure why else one ranch would have so many bulls. There were actually about forty altogether, with just twenty on the road. This guy was the big daddy. I wasn’t going anywhere until they decided to clear the road. When they did the herd broke up at a Y intersection and this guy became clearly upset about it. It’s not a pretty sight when this guy gets upset and about the time I took this image I was thinking seriously about backing WAY back away from him. I would not want to be the bull rider that is stepped on by him. It was amazing to see how close these bulls were and how they banded together. There was a little friendly horn to horn pushing going on, but there was  no question who the dominant bull was.

Corral B&W

Corral B&W

Unlike most of my past visits to Malheur, it remained a bit hard to scare up much to point a camera at in terms of wildlife, though I did see five different Great Horned Owls, including a nest, and three different burrowing owls. Of course, if you count mosquitos and ticks then there was no end of wildlife sightings and interactions. Even after I got home there were tick sightings.

The last two days I decided to use the sweet soft light of the morning to try out my new Nikon 50 mm F/1.4 lens. I was very impressed with it. I bought it for just the kind of narrow depth of field shots as the one above and the one at the top of this post, as well as for interiors of churches and museums when I travel to Europe. I had planned on shooting the long barn at the P Ranch with my new lens, as well, but my experience with ticks on a short hike the day before softened my enthusiasm for walking around in tall grass.

One of the highlights of the trip was to see a bobcat at the base of Steens Mountain. The reason I have no photo to share is that I had last photographed a burrowing owl in mid day sun at ISO 100 and so when the bobcat presented himself later in the day after clouds had formed ISO 100 gave me shutter speed of 1/100th of a second – panning with a 600 mm lens and 1.7x teleconverter on a running bobcat. The resulting blurs weren’t even interesting. I try to remember to reset my camera settings when conditions change, just in case a bobcat might jump out of the sage brush in front of me, but I’m not always successful.

You Can Never Go Back

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by chamimage
Sunrise on Tule Lake NWR

Sunrise on Tule Lake NWR

One of my goals for my trip to the Kalamath Basin a couple of weeks ago was to see if I could get a second chance at this landscape. I like the look and feel of it, but it is not sharp. I took about ten exposures and none of them were sharp. I am pretty sure I left the vibration reduction turned on on my 70-200 mm lens when I used it on the tripod – guaranteed to be blurry.

Sometimes I go through a mental check list in my head when I think a photograph may be really good. I call it the “What could I possibly be doing to totally screw this up?” list. I obviously didn’t bother on this particular morning. Probably not enough caffeine yet.

On the first morning in the refuge I headed for my landscape photo with a laser focus.

Lower Klamath NWR Sunrise

Lower Klamath NWR Sunrise

Then I stumbled onto this on the way. I figure an image on the compact flash card is worth two in the bush so I stopped.

Tule Lake Sunrise

Tule Lake Sunrise

Then I found this. Another bird in the hand.Of course by now the sun was too high for the landscape I had in mind. Maybe tomorrow.

I was back out early the next morning and almost made it to my destination…



I found this. Another bird in hand. I was close enough to my destination to realize that the conditions for the first photo above were not going to replicate themselves. The fog was consistently setting up altogether differently this year. You can never go back. That’s why you need the mantra the first time, “What could I possibly be doing to totally screw this up?”

One of my favorite quotes is from the late Galen Rowell ( a lot of my favorite quotes are from Galen Rowell so if you haven’t read his books, you should). He said “If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better, shoot it again.” Meaning don’t trade your bird in the hand for a possibly prettier bird later. It may rain for days on end. The tree you are photographing may fall down.

Lakeside Snag

Lakeside Snag

I had shot this tree the year before from the same spot. I almost didn’t take this photograph because I already had one I was very happy with. But I was standing there with the camera and the tripod and it was just stupid not to take the photograph. It was better than my previous one. “If it looks better, shoot it again.”



And then it fell down. Nothing lasts forever, especially old rotting snags.

Tangentially speaking, Malheur Lake (technically it is a marsh) is so shallow that the lake expands and contracts dramatically from year to year based on rainfall, which differs markedly from year to year in the southeastern Oregon desert. This creates a significant shoreline area during drought years. This area of shoreline came into dispute during the Peter French cattle baron era in the late 1800’s. The cattle baron claimed he owned all of the land. The squatters in the community of Narrows (where this tree stands; it may have been planted by those settlers) that sprang up claimed that he only owned to the high water mark and that the land between the high water mark and the actual lake was up for grabs. I guess they assumed the lake would never fill up to the high water mark ever again? Anyway it all got so hotly contested that Peter French was shot dead by one of the homesteaders in the contested area. Some say that man just drew the short straw and was assigned to be the assassin. Others say he didn’t draw the short straw, but volunteered, anyway. He was not a nice man, but he was acquitted of the murder by a jury of his peers, mostly because his wife and baby would probably starve to death without him. He then wandered away, leaving his wife and baby to face a grim future alone. I love history.


Posted in Photography Technique with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2012 by chamimage

Northern Flicker

I am doing a final edit on photos from last fall now. Why so long?

Well…I get the zingers and duds taken care of on the first or second time through. The good, but not great ones need to marinate a while. Usually not a whole year. For some reason I need to put some distance between shooting and editing. I have heard many others says the same thing.

For one thing it is hard to remove the sentimentality. Right after a shoot the photos are more about memories of the fun and not objects that are good or bad. I want to keep them and re-live the moment. Some of them receive undeserved merit for the difficulty I went through to capture them, or the undeserved brilliance I thought went into achieving the concept. If I walked a mile in a snow storm for the photo, it’s hard to delete it regardless of how sucky it might be.

Now that it has been almost a whole year I don’t even remember taking half of them. It is much easier to hit the delete button. I can be more cold-blooded about the whole thing and just do it.

It works the other way, too. I find things like the flicker above that I totally did not appreciate enough  last year.

Mule Deer Buck

Sometimes I have to be careful what I throw away. This buck was a tad too close for my 600 mm lens so I shot two images vertically to fit his antlers in. I have learned to stack those photos in Lightroom right away to remind me they go together in a pano or HDR.

I do very little in the field other than toss the obvious bone-headed stuff and label the things like churches and towns that I’ll forget. I’ve never had a laptop with a monitor that was dependable to assess anything other than viewable versus totally blurry. That leaves a lot of work to do when I get home, but I consistently find files I was tempted to delete in the field and turned out to be not so bad on the monitor at home.

Juvenile Female Coyote

The plus side of coming back to these images months later is that it is fun and not work. I find things like this juvenile coyote and recall the fun I had following her and what must have been her brother on different days. I followed each of them for about an hour each on their daily rounds. This one isn’t sharp enough for the stock agency, but some photos can just be memories and that’s okay.

Hmmmm...Road Kill


Here she is being a bit less dainty and feminine. Eau de Road Kill.

All of the above photos were from a trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early October.


Posted in Philosophy and Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by chamimage

Lakeside Snag

“If it looks good, photograph it. If it looks better, photograph it again.”

Galen Rowell

I have found the above quote by Galen Rowell helpful over the years. The tree above reinforced that philosophy a couple of times. The first time, when I made this photograph, I came upon the tree in great evening light. I hesitated to stop because I had photographed this tree in good light the year before and thought I had taken the ultimate shot. I remembered Galen’s adage and I stopped and took photographs that were clearly superior to those I had taken the year before.


The second time was this past fall when I found the above – my tree had fallen. I had wanted to photograph it on digital media, but the light was never good and I didn’t really make that much of an effort. It was a tree, it wasn’t going anywhere. Until it went to ground. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you can come back and take that photograph later – you can’t. You can take another photograph, but not that one. It will never be exactly the same again. Coincidentally, I saw this tree, from another angle, in one of Galen’s books.

This tree is at a spot called The Narrows at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. The Narrows was actually a town at one time. It was a way station for travelers. Then the automobile came along, and a new road to Burns, and The Narrows became irrelevant. This tree was undoubtedly planted by a resident of The Narrows 100 years ago.

The Narrows is the narrow connection between Malheur Lake and Mud Lake. Malheur Lake has a couple of secrets.

First of all, Malheur Lake is not a lake, it is a marsh. Most of it is about a foot deep and that explains why the shore expands and contracts so much between high water years and low water years. This created some problems. More on that after I reveal the second secret.

Malheur Lake is located in the northern end of The Great Basin, which extends down through Nevada and Utah and includes the Great Salt Lake. The major characteristic of The Great Basin is that none of the lakes have an outlet. They maintain their level through evaporation alone. Guess what? The inconvenient truth is that Malheur Lake has an outlet. In high water years it forms the Malheur River which flows into the Snake River, which flows to the Columbia River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean. An outlet to the sea.

If you want to get technical, the fact that Malheur Lake is not actually a lake means that, technically, lakes in the Great Basin have no outlet.

The vast change in the size of Malheur Lake from year to year caused no end of trouble in the 1890’s. The cattle baron of the area, Peter French (who actually just managed the ranch for a Sacramento man, Dr. Glen), asserted that his land extended to the water line of Malheur Lake.  The smaller farmers in the area farmed the land between the high water mark and the water line, thousands of acres, claiming Peter French’s claim stopped at the high water mark. The courts were apparently no help and the feud went on for years and became increasingly rancorous. It ended in the killing of Peter French. He was shot in the back. It is said the man who shot him drew the short straw among the farmers who drew to see who would do the dirty deed. The man who shot him was exonerated. Guess who was on the jury? Isn’t history fun?

Close Encounters

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by chamimage

Watching for Little Red Riding Hood

I went to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last week to photograph large mule deer bucks that lay low there during the hunting season. In the past they have proven to be quite cooperative, but this year they were a bit more stand-offish. Maybe it’s the late autumn we are having and maybe it is just a new angst-ridden generation.

I found the coyotes, hawks, and owls to be more generous about letting me spend some time in close proximity to them – especially the coyotes. Two of them got a little closer than I was totally comfortable with. I always worry about rabies when a wild predator approaches me closer than one would expect.

The adult coyote above was actually hunting dragon flies ( sorry to burst your bubble about the fierce predator lying in wait for Red Riding Hood). There were so many dragon flies in this place they were alighting on me constantly. At one point this coyote did a little mouse jump at a bunch of dragon flies clustered in a sun spot warming themselves. It was unexpected and I missed getting a photo of it.

As he fed along I noticed that he was so close that I could no longer focus on him. That’s close. I took my eye from the camera and stood quietly and he walked past me so close I could have petted him as he went by. He gave a little glance upward as he passed. At about ten feet past me he broke into a run. I’m not sure if he finally caught my scent (Phew!), or the glance into my eyes finally registered that I was a human.

In retrospect, I decided that he did not recognize me as human because I was standing behind my tripod. Not something that is normal, but not the shape of an enemy.

Coyote Pup

I met this half-grown coyote pup on my first night in the refuge. He was hunting grasshoppers along the road. I met his sister later, also hunting along a road. It must be a bit scary being on their own, suddenly.

At one point he left the road and I got my camera on a tripod and followed him, getting ahead of him by taking a fork in the trail and then waiting for him. This is when he emerged. Instead of being scared he was actually curious about me and took a few steps closer to give me a sniff. The EXIF says he was 11.9 meters away when this was taken. Again, I was standing behind the tripod and that may have thrown him.

There seem to be two varieties of coyote – runners and non-runners. The majority of them run if you even begin to slow the car down. I’m not sure if running from humans is a learned trait, but I think every coyote who has ever been shot at by a rancher or had his mate shot is a runner from that point on. I’m sure running is conducive to longevity in ranch country.

Rolling In It

MMMMMM. Roadkill. Likely the sister of the above coyote pup.

Sunset on a Heron

One advantage of the late autumn is that the heron, egret, and cormorant rookery was still fairly active. It is in an area that is closed until August 15th to allow the chicks to fledge unperturbed, but they were still nestlings this year at that time.


Malheur Spring Trip

Posted in Photo Stories, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on May 16, 2011 by chamimage

Forster's Tern

Everybody thinks they, personally, have the worst vacation weather karma. I say it doesn’t really count as bad until it’s “you have to be evacuated” bad. I was woken by the ranger standing outside of my tent at 5 am yesterday and told to get the hell out while I still could. I was camped at Page Springs at the base of  Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon and the only road leading in to the camp was washing out from the torrential rains we had been having. I made it out (amazing how fast a guy can take down a tent when he is motivated). The dirt road was going to be toast soon, with that fast moving water running over it. I had just seen a larger road that had already washed out the day before so I was familiar with Nature’s work.

It is already a high water year in the Steens drainage from the snow melt. The city of Burns has been in danger of flooding for the past couple of weeks from the Silvies River. I had the unsettling experience of driving the central patrol road in Malheur Wildlife Refuge ( and looking over to notice that the Blitzen River about twenty feet away was actually higher than the road I was driving on. Nothing but a vulnerable looking dirt berm between me and the river and it had about a foot left before being topped. I’d seen enough breaches in that berm in the past couple of days to worry.

I kept on driving on home after breaking camp because the refuge roads were getting muddy and soft and my suspicion is that they washed out after the overnight rains. Malheur Lake is getting water from the Blitzen River AND the Silvies River this year. Since it is a shallow lake, the expected rise of 4.5 feet will expand its perimeter by quite a ways. The middle of the lake might actually get to nine feet deep this year. You would have to walk a couple of miles to get to the middle, but your knees would be dry most of the way. Party Trivia – Malheur Lake is the exception to the rule that none of the rivers or lakes in the Great Basin empty into, well, pretty much anything except thin air. In a high water year like this Malheur Lake empties into the Malheur River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

I just read this morning that Malheur NWF is the largest fresh water marsh in the U.S. The extra marshiness this year has spread the birds out and limited the activity of the deer and other mammals, so it was not as good for me, photographically, as previous years. The owls and neotropical migrants were unaffected.

I never did get to go look for wild horses. Friday was too bright and hot and after that the roads turned to mud and the wild horse road is a Bad road with a capital B in dry weather. The weather was predicted to be cloudy with a chance of rain and I thought cloudy sounded better for wild horse photographs and put it off. Even while it was thunder and lightning and hail the radio was still cheerily predicting a few clouds and chance of rain.

Then it poured. And poured. My tent stayed passably dry’ish, but I had to wear earplugs to sleep due to the roar of the wind through the cottonwoods and the large rain drops hitting the tent.

The only other time I’ve had to be evacuated wasn’t technically due to weather, it was a forest fire on Strawberry Mountain near John Day, Oregon. I was hiking and the wisp of smoke ahead turned to a plume and then a solid wall before the Forest Service plane started buzzing me, a not too subtle message to get the hell out of there. Amazing how fast you can hike off of a mountain when motivated.

Great Horned Owl