Animal Portraits – Otters



I was walking down memory lane this morning when I found myself along the Madison river in Yellowstone. It was way back in 2005 and I had been hoping to see some elk cross the river. Elk crossing the river is always good shooting. Bulls stopping to thrash their antlers in the water, throwing spray into the air, bellowing, cows bunching up to wait him out before they cross behind him. This was September so the rut was in full force and there was always lots of action.

But there weren’t any elk. They had moved out to greener pastures and the river was empty. I was just getting ready to pack up and find something else to shoot when I heard a high-pitched squealing coming from downstream. It was a young otter that had gotten separated from its family and was crying desperately to be found. It was racing frantically back and forth along the bank, shooting out into the river, climbing everything it could find and continually calling out for the others to come find it. This was the beginning of a very good afternoon.

Now otters in Yellowstone are not rare. But they’re one of those animals that you never see. Not unless you’re lucky. You can spend your entire time hunting for them, chasing down rumors, staking out places where they’ve been and never see one. Then you’ll talk to someone who had been picnicking at one of the picnic sites along the river and they’re all “Oh yeah we saw them. They were fishing right in front of us. One of them caught this great big trout. It was really neat. There was like four of them.  You should have been here. ” Serendipity plays a very big part in Otter spotting.

Now any place along the river is prime otter territory but there are some places more prime than others. I just happened to be unknowingly at one of them at just the right time. There is a spot on the Madison that is called the “Log Jam”. It’s just a little ways upstream past 7 mile bridge in a wide shallow bend in the river. It’s shallower there than the areas above and below and consequently a perfect place for the logs and branches floating downstream to snag and pile up forming the log jam.

This is the otter equivalent of Disneyworld. They go absolutely gonzo nuts in a place like that. First off every part of the Log Jam in an E ticket ride, they crawl up on it, they dive off of it, they wrestle and toss each other into the river. They take naps on the larger logs that are warm from the sun, hang out, talk about their day, fight, play snuggle, goof off, and generally just be otters, plus there’s food all over the place. Trout are always under and around the logs and so are the otters, because the only thing they like better than playing and sleeping is eating.

The otter family wasn’t lost. They were just upstream of the log jam and the youngster was on the downstream side. After Mom heard the little one wailing she gave a few sharp barks and soon they were all reunited again. Thus began one of the most perfect afternoons in the entire history of Yellowstone, Photography, Otter watching and sublime happiness, ever. As if deciding to give this photographer a gift they spent the next several hours swimming back and forth between that Log Jam and the confluence of the Madison and Gibbon and Firehole rivers at the eastern end of the Madison valley. Maybe a distance of 5 or 6 miles. We, the otters and I, plus about a dozen other photographers that joined in, walked back and forth along that stretch of river until I had filled every storage card I had with me with otter pictures and the otters decided it was time to go somewhere else. Without a sound they suddenly turned and swam downstream faster than we could run and they were gone. In the nearly 10 years since that afternoon that I’ve been going to Yellowstone I have never duplicated that experience again.

Fortunately I have these images to remind me of that incredible afternoon. It’s not the same but it’s pretty darn good.


Blue Winds


It’s November going on December and that’s when the blue winds come. We get them other times of the year too especially in late January when winter is at its strongest, but the first of them come about now.

Winter is beginning to find its foothold in the big mountains here in Colorado, especially up in Rocky Mountain National Park. Some snow has fallen up on the high country already, even falling down onto the foothills at the base of these high places, and it is starting to slowly cover the mountain tops. The highest ridges have snow building behind them and it doesn’t take much for the blue winds to start.

The winds race through the valleys and over the ridges, gathering force, quickly picking up speed and lifting and gathering the snow that hasn’t had a chance to tightly grip the stone it is resting on. When it does, the weaker winter light, which is close to being at its lowest angle now, shines through the misty snow clouds that form in a cold metallic way and turns everything nearby into a deep indigo blue.

These are the Blue Winds. It is a cold beauty to be sure and one that may take some getting used to. But every day is a miracle, even when it seems things can’t get any darker there is always something outside yourself to see and appreciate and take solace in. Even if it’s the cold dark beauty of the Blue Winds.

Jack Rabbit Morning


If you happen to find yourself caught up in the Black Friday frenzy and need a place to clear your head, I can heartily recommend Monument valley. What really works is to get there about 6 in the morning, a little earlier if you want to watch the sun come up behind the Totem Pole, and just walk out amongst the dunes. Remember to breathe though, a lot of people get so caught up in the beauty they forget to breathe then you’ve got drag marks all over the place as you try to pull them out of the shot.

This is also the time of day when the night shift goes off duty and the day shift is just clocking in. This Jack Rabbit is hightailing it home before the day shift coyotes come in. Coyotes being overachievers tend to punch in a little early just in case there are stragglers hanging around, so it’s best to clear your duty stations as quickly as possible.

Maintainance did an incredible raking job last night to get the dunes looking just right. There’s a couple of old-timers in charge of this particular area and they have the techniques down pat. If they rake everything just right the shadows work the way they’re supposed to, filling in the valleys amongst the rivulets of sand and laying out the various shapes just perfectly. These guys need a raise. They’ve also chosen the clear blue sky motif for today. That works too. Everything’s spiffed up just right.

You can’t see it but if you were here you’d feel the air this early in the morning is crisp, almost cold, bracing is the word I’m looking for. Makes you glad you’re alive. Cold enough that you’re really glad you brought that down coat. But it won’t last. Another couple of hours and it’ll be warm enough that you won’t need to wear it, instead you’ll be using that coat to sit on to keep the still cold chill of the sand off your butt. Sitting, watching the light play across the sand as you drink the last of your tea you begin to realize this is better than fighting the mob down at the mall.

I knew about his place already so I brought an extra thermos of hot tea. I’m just going to sit here for a while longer. Let me know if you got any good deals.


Happy Thanksgiving



Happy Thanksgiving!

The staff and I at The Institute would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have been faithful readers of BigShotsNow, the blog, and hope that each and every one of you have something to be thankful for on this day of thanksgiving.

For some of you it will be the opportunity to be with friends and family to share in the forced fellowship that close-quarters bring during the holidays, for others they will be thankful for the simple pleasure of being out on parole. For Hans, shown here walking his post as one of our free-range, high school educated, patriotic guard turkeys, he’s thankful that the traditional Thanksgiving meal here at The Institute is Fire-Roasted Chinchilla with a mild but zesty pesto glaze, served with natural organic Rutabaga nuggets. Some of you who might be without a single thing to be thankful for might borrow the fact that you’re not having our traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Everyone has something to be thankful for, even if it’s just one awful, pathetic thing, it’s your awful and pathetic thing, and it’s there to be celebrated. So join us in wishing the world and everyone in it but Jane Fonda and the Clinton’s, ISIS, those of you who are truly bad and horrible people, (we’re looking at you the Middle East), politicians that don’t tell the truth, and a certain select lawyer who shall be nameless for now, a happy, Happy Thanksgiving. Oh yes, and remember to compost those left overs. Enjoy your holiday.

Last Years Version



Almost exactly a year ago this was the scene captured through The Institute’s viewports. Approximately 8:00am, temperature around 200°below zero and a light wind moving the fog into and up the ravine to bump up against the side of The Institutes weather gazing platform.

The sun was up and trying its best to break through the clouds. It was hit and miss most of the time, sometimes breaking through to light up the entire scene, other times barely able to light up a single wisp of fog. The range of colors was extraordinary from a deep indigo blue in the shadows to a rich warm gold as the slowly moving fog rose up into the sun’s rays. Occasionally the light hitting the fog would break down into the color spectrum causing a faint violet tinge, sort of like a frozen rainbow.

Not long after this image was captured the sun rose high enough to bring its power down onto the scene, the fog burned off, the light turned harsh and it was full day again. Still cold, not as pretty, but winter in the Rockies.

Today a year later, it’s cold again. There is no fog, hardly any snow, but lots of wind. 90 mph along the foothills of Northern Colorado. It is still winter and it looks like it is going to stay that way for months. To some of you who had expressed an interest in skipping winter this year I’m afraid I have some bad news. Ain’t going to happen. Sorry to be so brusque but I figure we might as well just get it out there so you can deal with it and work something out. Personally I intend to scour the web to locate places within this galaxy at a reasonable travelling distance where they have warm mostly every day, not too hot, but warm. Then when I find it, you know, like go there. I’ll keep you posted on how that all works out.

Strike A Pose


Music plays a large part in a birds life. They sing it. They listen to it. They have favorites. And those of you who have ever been outside and heard a bird sing you know they love it. But there are birds who can’t sing. Through some horrible genetic accident they can’t sing a note. Like these ravens. They can’t sing and when they try they all sound like Tom Waits after a night at the piano and a carton of Lucky Strikes. So what do they do? They’re birds. Music is their life.

Many choose to do something completely different. Ravens have a rep for being really smart, like Mensa smart, and they are incredible problem solvers. One time I was in Yellowstone, in the parking lot at Old Faithful Lodge and a whole band of bikers had parked their bikes near the entrance and gone in. A raven spent a full 10 minutes figuring out how to unzip the saddlebag on the back of one of the bikes then carefully pulled out what looked like stripper underwear, piece by piece. As it would pull out each piece, each one naughtier than the next, the crowd that had gathered around would let out a cheer. This seemed to encourage the raven to dig deeper and it didn’t stop until every single piece was out of the bag and lying on the ground. There was a Vegas sticker on the back of the bike so I guess whatever happened in Vegas didn’t stay there. In any event it shows that ravens like to be in the limelight.

I had stopped at an overlook to check things out and another car there had their radio playing, loudly, way too loudly for Yellowstone anyway, and as fate would have it Madonna was playing. She was doing that song Vogue and after a few choruses of Strike a Pose this ravens latent musical abilities had to find release somehow. It too began striking a pose and didn’t stop until enough other visitors had threatened to lynch the radio player and he turned the radio off. This just goes to show that you can’t mess with genetics. This raven couldn’t sing but it could let out, that musical expression it had, in the only way it knew. In dance. Sure it was a quiet dance, not very exuberant but not exactly sedate either, but it still allowed it to release that pent-up musical energy we know is in every bird. I just wish the radio playing guy had been playing James Brown’s “I Feel Good” instead. Would that have been cool or what? For those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last 75 years and don’t know “I Feel Good” here’s what it sounds like.

I bet ravens from all over the park would come to join in.  Now that would be something to see.


Near-sighted Wolves


As you can see by the above photo there is a new plague troubling our friends the wolves. It’s not just the Wyoming legislature or mean-spirited ranchers but a new disease called lupus prope aciei or Wolf Near-sightedness. It is a relatively new disease for these wolves, only having been discovered after researchers found them stumbling and bumping into things as the wolves tried to follow a scent trail on their hunt. The researchers had been following up reports of wolves with large swollen noses and bruises around their head and shoulders seen sitting listlessly along the roadside. They had taken to walking along the asphalt because of the lack of obstacles in their way, pathetically nose to tail, like tired circus elephants, sometimes the young pups even holding on to their parents tails with their mouths. If wolves could cry it would have been their Trail of Tears.

Just what is this affliction really though, you might ask. Well here you can see a prime example of this problem in action. The wolf in the foreground has just scented an elk or buffalo or a tourist with some pizza and is peering about myopically trying to locate its possible prey. See it squint its eyes, that’s not a Clint Eastwood imitation, no, that is lupus prope aciei  at work. That poor wolf can not see past the end of its own snout. The wolf in the background who is also afflicted is desperately trying to ascertain what it is it just stepped in.

The federal government sent in a canine Ophthalmologist to test the wolves hoping to discover the cause of the wolves ailments but due to over-zealousness in the doctor’s approach and his handling of the wolves he was never seen again. These are wolves. They’re near-sighted not domesticated. So as of right now we know little about the cause and/or treatment of this debilitating affliction other than don’t be grabbing no wolf by the nose to look in its eyes unless you get some type of formal agreement first. That, and wolves can’t digest badges and optical testing equipment. It’s not much but it’s a start.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, these wolves are now safe in a modified enclosure near Yellowstone National Park until they can be cured. All the rocks and other wolf-height lumpy obstacles are in the process of being wrapped in a protective foam covering and other taller impediments such as trees, large shrubbery, shovel handles, barrels to store wolf chow in, etc., are being modified with an application of foam Bollard covers, a technique borrowed from the maritime industry to keep large oil tankers from damaging those expensive metal posts on the docks they tie up at. This may safeguard our wolves for the time being but is not by any means a long-term solution.

One drawback to this approach is that it hasn’t been determined whether wolves like the taste of foam. If that turns out to be the case, that wolves do indeed like the taste of foam, perhaps a solution would be to spray the entire compound with an industrial strength product like Grannick’s Bitter Apple Spray, which is used to keep puppies from eating your credenza, and is available at fine pet stores nationwide. It’s just a thought.

But listen, a word of warning. If you should come across a wolf sitting forlornly along the roadside staring at his feet, don’t rush up to it and offer your condolences about its condition, Wolves don’t like that. Instead in a moderate tone say something like “Hey, dude, What’s up? You OK? Anything we can do for you?” Something like that. Do not and I repeat, Do not rush up and grab its snout and start looking into its eyes to see if it is near-sighted or not. I mean, this should go without saying but there are some of you out there that watch way too much TV and might be tempted to utilize the Disney approach and offer aid. Don’t do that. There are trained professionals on duty to handle situations like this. Call them. Let them do their jobs. Instead if you feel like you want to help, send cards, or donate those used eye glasses into the many drop-off boxes located throughout the area, or make a donation to the lupus prope aciei fund or simply drive on by. You can help more just by sending them your good thoughts.