Wichita Mountains Part 1 – Otters

I was fortunate to spend several days in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge a couple of weeks ago and thought I would share what I saw.  Since I saw so many diverse varieties of flora and fauna I’ll break them into separate posts.  This post will focus on the little furry creature known as the River Otter.

My first morning there I decided to head out to French Lake and capture the sunrise.  I was hoping for some clouds and a dynamic sky, but as the sun began rising, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  Still though, the sunrise was magnificent and it did my soul good to see it.  And then I spotted something special.  In the reflection of the sun before me, there was something in the water.  I had read that there were otter in these waters, but I had no idea where on the lake or at what time to expect them to be out.  Sure enough, there were actually two of them swimming around and diving for their breakfast.  I sat in amazement of their swimming ability and agility for a few minutes, and then realized that I came equipped for a sunrise.  My big lens was still in the car!  So I jumped up and ran back to grab the other camera with the 600mm attached, praying that they would still be around and active when I returned.

I get back to my spot and slap the 7D with the 600mm f/4 attached onto my Acratech GP ball-head, hoping that it would live up to its reputation of being able to withstand the extra weight, and I must say that it performed beautifully.  I aimed and fired several frames in the direction of the otters and caught them both in the highlight of the sun’s watery reflection.  Step one accomplished.  I now have shots of river otters for my collection.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

I watch in amazement for a while longer, just watching them diving, coming to the surface to eat, and then diving again.  I keep firing as the opportunity presents itself.  Then I notice that one of them is making its way toward the shore not far from me.  Could it be that it would be gracious enough to climb out of the water onto that rock sticking out of the shore?  Sure enough, it pops up and stretches a few times, resting on a rock that is just under the surface of the water.  Long enough for me to capture a few more frames.

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From here, the otters returned to the water and swam away, leaving me with a few frames and some great memories to carry with me.

The next time I saw an otter was on my last morning in the refuge.  This time I was at Buford Lake.  It was already past sunrise and I was going prepared for birds since this lake was surrounded by a forested area.  I had already spotted some red-headed ducks when sure enough, there was the otter, swimming across the surface of the small lake.  Still in the “golden hour”, the warm hues of the sun made for a nice capture.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

At one point, the otter climbed up on the bank directly across from me and rolled around in the dead grass, as if using it for a towel to dry off.  It popped up on its front legs and looked at me as if to try and figure out what the big piece of glass was in front of my face.  I was able to make eye contact and –captured!  After drying off, the little otter walked into the tall grass and I thought I had seen the last of it.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

But a few minutes later, it came out, slipped back into the water and began swimming directly at me.  Between my excitement and the limited minimum focus distance of the 600 f/4, I only have this blurry, very closeup look at its face, as it swam to within a few feet of me, probably checking out the reflection of the glass, before turning to resume its hunting.  I share this photo only because of the excitement it generated in me while I was simultaneously trying to focus both mentally, and manually with the lens while the otter was advancing directly towards me!  Add this one to my collection of “if only” shots.  So close and yet fail.

Finally, as the otter continued its morning ritual of hunting and feeding, the thought went through my head that “sometimes you’re the otter, and sometimes you’re the fish”.  This day, I was the otter!

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

If you have the chance, stop by and check out the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.  It is in southwestern Oklahoma, right outside of Lawton.  It is only about a 3 hour drive from the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex (depending on which side you begin from), and it is well worth the drive.  In the coming days, as time permits, I’ll update with some of the other creatures I was lucky enough to spend time with in this wonderful place!

If you enjoyed this post, share it with friends.  After all, it’s free.  And that’s a pretty good deal!

All photographs captured with the Canon 7D and the Canon 600mm F/4IS lens.

Back to LLELA

Continuing on my quest to find and photograph a Painted Bunting, I returned to my local wildlife center, the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area.  I knew these guys were there because I could hear them singing in the tree tops most of the time I was there hiking around the woods.  They were very stealthy though and I never actually got to see one.

So I arrive early, close to 7am and begin the hunt.  Again, I can hear them, but I see nothing.  Hiking down the Cottonwood Trail, I catch a glimpse of a hummingbird, but it is gone before I can get my lens on it.  Then I come across something a bit slower that I can warm up with.

This “garden spider” was about the size of my hand, but it was just hanging out on the side of the trail waiting for some insect to come along.  It didn’t bother me so I just made a photograph and continued on, hunting the elusive bunting.

Continuing on, I came to the beaver pond where I saw several herons and egrets.  I’ve got lots of pictures of them, but I did notice this young Great Blue Heron flying by and took the opportunity to practice my bird-in-flight photography.  Pretty happy with how this one turned out.

I completed the trail with nary a Painted Bunting to be seen.  I heard them, but they remained out of my sight.  Then, as I was checking out some scissor-tailed flycatchers on the power lines, a LLELA worker stopped and talked with me.  I told her what I was looking for and she suggested I try the Bittern Marsh trail.  I thanked her and headed that way.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, perhaps you remember that this is the trail where I ran into (almost stepped on) Mr Cottonmouth.  This is someone I do NOT wish to run into again.  But the call of the Painted Bunting is strong so I push my fears aside and head down the trail.

I get no farther than a couple hundred yards down the trail when I see a “stick” across the path up ahead of me, except this stick is pretty smoothly curved.  I stop!  Then I look through my telephoto lens and see this.

Okay, I know enough now to realize this is not a cottonmouth, but a “harmless” variety of snake.  Still I wait, then approach very slowly.  Finally, it notices me and slithers back into the grass.  Sorry I disturbed its sunbathing, but not sorry it’s now off the path.  I continue.

I come to the beginning of the marsh area and see a Great Egret “fishing” in the water.  Thanks to some local Eagle Scouts, there are now benches on the boardwalk, so I sit and observe for a while.  It’s now over 100 degrees, but in the shade and near the water, it actually isn’t that bad.  Still, I’m glad I packed water with me.  I watch the egret and make several photographs.  I enjoy the white bird and its reflection against the green water.

I’m not saying that I was scared or anything, but I just wasn’t ready to go to the part of the trail where the “incident” occurred.  I head back on the trail the way I came.

Then, about a hundred yards from the trail-head, I hear the song of the Painted Bunting.  Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a bright red flash!  I stop and stand very still.  I scan the trees, and then, just to my right, I see a Painted Bunting sitting on a branch, just watching me!  Of course, before I can turn the camera, it is back into the trees.  I have just made my first personal sighting of this bird and I’m not ready to give up.

I wait.  I even use my Android to play the bird’s song in hopes to lure it out of the trees.  I’m waiting.  I have my camera ready and aimed to where I think it will come down.  Nothing.  I wait some more.  Nothing.  Now it’s starting to get hot.  I turn around to check my surroundings (I’m not far from where I spotted the snake earlier).  Then, I see it.  BEHIND ME!  It’s just sitting there on a low branch, watching me.  Slowly, I turn the tripod around, aim, and FIRE!  I was able to get about 6 shots before it flew away back into the trees.  Then I notice that my flash had somehow gotten bumped to a higher power than it should have been.  Luckily, with the help of Lightroom and the fact that I shoot the RAW format, all was not lost and I was able to recover most of the photo to a decent degree.  So, after about five months and hunting and watching for a Painted Bunting, and five hours of this day in the heat, I present to you, my first!

Not a perfect shot, but for now, I’ll take it!

Now for the next challenge: the Bobcat!

Photos created with the Canon 7D and Canon 600mm f/4IS lens

Be Prepared!

As the Boy Scouts are fond of saying, “Be prepared!”

When I got home today I was going through my usual routine.  Come in the house, give Zorro his kitty treats, and then check the back yard for birds.  When I checked the back yard, I was shocked at what I saw.  Instead of a yard full of birds under the feeders, or the stray kitty that has been hanging around lately, I found this!

Not only was the first time I have seen a Cooper’s Hawk around here, it looks like it was feeding on one of my birds to boot!

First, I’m in shock, but then I think, at least get the binoculars and get a closer look.  So I run to the bedroom, get the binoculars, and then run back to the kitchen door.  Still there!  Great.  Now I’m thinking, “what are you doing?  Where’s the camera??”

So, back to the bedroom, no time to pull out the 600 and tripod, but my 5d has the 100-400 still attached from my previous outing so I grab it and head to the back door.  I’m in luck, it’s still there, munching away.

As I look closer through the camera, I believe that the bird it is eating is the red-winged blackbird that has been hanging around lately, acting like it was hurt or sick.  Wouldn’t fly off unless you walked right up to it.  Well, I guess it doesn’t have to worry about that anymore!

 Ah yes, the circle of life right in my back yard!  It doesn’t get much better than this!  Unless of course, you’re the blackbird.  🙂
Photos taken with the Canon 5dMii and the Canon 100-400L IS lens

Ft Worth Nature Center

Today, Karen and I woke up early and headed over to the Ft Worth Nature Center to be there when they opened the gates at 8am.  I had been told that a bald eagle had been spotted down around the river area and I thought we’d try our luck at finding it.

When we got to the gates, there were a few other vehicles waiting for them to open, and a few guys in camo standing around talking.  The sky was completely overcast and it was still in the 40s, but I got out and tried to strike up a conversation.  I could tell by the beanbag mounts on their doors that these guys were photographers, and the way they were dressed, they appeared to be looking for wildlife.  I tried to ask them about the best locations to shoot here, but they didn’t appear willing to share any of their “secret” places with me.  That was a first for me.  Ever other time I have met photographers out and about, they were more than willing to share whatever they knew.  These guys must be a different breed of photographer.  When I asked if they were with a specific group of anything one of them looked at me and said, “a photography group” as if to say “well duh!”  I got the hint.

About that time the lady came to open the gate and we entered the area.  We drove along the river and our first stop was the boardwalk at the marsh area.  As we were approaching the bird blind on the boardwalk, I looked over to notice a deer crossing the river.  I hurriedly set up my tripod and was able to capture a few frames before it was all the way across!

While still at the marsh boardwalk, I spotted a red-shouldered hawk on a tree near the bank of the river.  His feathers were being blown by the wind and even he looked a little chilled.  He stuck around for quite a while before finally flying away.  Gave us plenty of opportunities to capture his image.

As we began to leave the boardwalk, Karen pointed out a large white bird that was flying right at us.  I looked through the 600 and wasn’t really sure, but it looked like a pelican.  I wasn’t sure because I’ve never captured one before, but as it got closer, (and as I found later when I looked it up), it is indeed an American Pelican.  These guys can get large with a wing span of up to 9 feet!  This one flew right at me and at one point was so large in the viewfinder he no longer fit!

But it wasn’t enough for just this one pelican.  There was a whole flock of them.  At one point they flew right over our heads, at which point I was glad they weren’t mad at us for any reason.  I did capture this shot of a few of them flying in formation.

One last bird as we were leaving the marsh area.  This little song sparrow was sitting on the high grass just a singing away.  The cold and gray sky didn’t seem to darken his spirits any.

From here, we drove around a bit and found “Prarie Dog Town”.  I knew I was going to be in trouble here.  I have this thing for small, cute, critters, and sure enough, I shot quite a few frames at this location.  I just couldn’t get enough of these little guys.  Every time I would get a shot that I really liked, they would turn around and do something else cute.  So, here are a few of the many shots that I took.

 

And what could be cuter than the husband prarie dog kissing his wife good-bye as he leaves for work.

Okay, enough silliness.  Our next stop was Greer Island.  Yes, there is a sign as you cross over to the island that alligators have in fact been seen in the area, but we didn’t see any today.  I’m guessing that the cold water has those cold-blooded creatures looking for warmer climates right about now.

Hoping to see some more bird life, we were quietly waking through the woods on the island, when all the sudden, we hear a loud voice and then the sound of little girls screaming (playing).  Yep, all the birds flew away.  Luckily, once things calmed down again, I did happen to catch the sound of a downy woodpecker doing his business on the side of a tree.

And finally, as we were leaving the island to conclude our visit I spotted a great blue heron on the shore of the island.  He was just hanging out at the edge of the water as ducks swam by.  One last picture before we left.

All in all, not a bad day.  Got to explore some new places, and even through it was cold and the sun refused to shine, I was still able to find some photo-worthy opportunities.  If nothing else, the Prarie  dogs alone were worth the trip! And speaking of prarie dogs, one more before we go…

These guys are just too cute.  I could stay there and shoot these guys all day long.

All photos taken with the Canon 7D and the Canon 600mmL f/4 IS usm lens

Back Yard Birds

This evening I spent time in my back yard, honing my skills with my new lens and catching some of the local wildlife.  In my case, “the local wildlife” just happens to be “common birds.”  But, as I learned recently, just because these birds are common in my back yard, they are not necessarily common in everyone’s back yard, so I share what I have with you.

First is one of my favorites; the Blue Jay.  I think this is one of the prettiest birds God created, even if their attitude doesn’t match their looks.  But I’m learning that they really are the quintessential bully.  They make a lot of noise, but when it comes right down to it, they are afraid of their own shadow.  Take this shot for instance.  I have to be quick to catch a good shot of these guys because they either fly away quickly, or turn their back on me.  At least, with its back turned, I got a great shot of the details of its feathers.  Very pretty bird.

Probably the most numerous birds I have are the doves.  I have a whole flock of them that come every evening to pick up the seeds that the other birds knock out of the feeders.  They are great, but they too get flustered easily.  It is funny to watch them because around 6pm, they will start lining up on the fence.  And then, almost as if on cue, they all descend to the ground together and begin eating.  These two on the fence looked like they were discussing why the guy on the porch kept pointing the big clicky thing at them.  🙂

And last but not least, are my House Finches.  I have several of these in my back yard as well.  They are not as numerous as the Doves, but they are close.  They aren’t quite as skittish as the other birds, and they don’t seem to mind the flash of the camera.  Their coloring lends to some very pretty pictures too.

So, that’s my birds from this evening.  There was one out-of-the-ordinary thing that happened this evening.  At one point, all the birds in the yard, at one time, took off in a mass exodus from the area.  I hadn’t heard any noises or anything, and I couldn’t figure out what had happened.  Then, about that time, a Hawk flew through my back yard, right at eye level with me.  I was shocked!  It was beautiful.  And then I thought… “I have a camera right in front of me!” but it was too late.  Doh!  Maybe it will return and land long enough for me to get a picture some day.  But until then, I’ll just have to wait and practice.