Out Of The Darkness

OutDarkness7922click image to enlarge

One of the pure joys of being a photographer is being witness to singular moments of beauty. Sights and events that suddenly appear before you that stop you in your tracks and stun you with their absolute clarity and simplicity. Regardless of what you choose to photograph there will be moments that occur when everything seems to come together to produce an image that sums up why you return to nature over and over again hoping to see an amazing occurrence and capture it.

Walking along the bank of a pond in Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge late one afternoon hoping for a shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron I had spotted earlier before the sun dropped lower making it too dark to shoot into the reeds where they like to stand, this plover suddenly flushed and rose into the air out of the darkness, into the sunlight above the reeds.

As it rose higher the sunlight caught its wings outstretched, highlighting the translucent primary feathers, gently illuminating the soft white under belly with a greenish reflection from the reeds below. The golden light caused the dark area on the back of its head and neck to turn into a gorgeous mahogany hue. My vantage point allowed me to capture it against the dark reeds and nearly black water below making it standout in gorgeous contrast.

These moments last for mere seconds and the plover with a few powerful wing-beats was soon gone, flying off into the distance. My camera had been set for shooting into the darkness of the reeds where I expected the heron to be and it was just sheer luck that those settings worked for this image also. A lot of these situations are serendipitous in that everything is totally spontaneous and unexpected and you have only moments to react and capture the scene. When you do successfully however it simply adds to the need to get back out there and try to make it happen again.



The Egg Inspector



In our long-standing tradition of bringing forth new and unusual information about our animal neighbors the Director and instructors here at The Institute would like to unveil a new program. It is called Our Animal Friends At Work or OAFAW. Periodically we will feature the occupations of our animal neighbors and highlight their activities and responsibilities.

Given the sheer size of our collective national parks, monuments, refuges, natural areas and other places where the public can come and view the scenic wonders and abundant animal life, humans cannot perform all the jobs required to maintain and keep these areas in working order. Consequently some of these operations have to be delegated to our animal partners.

Our first featured guest employee is a hard-working dedicated individual who is in charge of a very important position at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. Meet Chief Inspector Long-tailed Weasel, or simply LT as he is known to his colleagues. He has a very important job here at the refuge in maintaining the integrity and quality of the eggs that are produced by all the different species of migrating birds that stop off here at the refuge on their way to somewhere else.

Literally thousands and thousands of migrating birds pass through the refuge and many will stop off and lay their eggs in nests, depressions in the ground, nests hanging from the bullrushes ringing the shoreline, or for those who can’t be bothered just laying them anywhere they happen to feel like. Without supervision and guidance there is ample opportunity for mishap or just a general lessening of quality of the eggs produced here. That’s where LT the Egg Inspector comes in.

He works tirelessly but ceaselessly, observing, locating and entering every nest he can to check the egg clusters integrity. When he finds a nest his first job is to check on the eggs within for quantity, color, size, conformation, shell integrity, and the well-being of the contents inside the egg. This he does by performing a procedure called CIOEIU (pronounced SEE-Oh-E-EEW)  or Cracking It Open, Eating It Up. If in his opinion the egg contents bear further investigation he will proceed to perform CIOEIU on each egg in the nest until he is sure the viability of the eggs is correct. This is a thankless task as he gets little or no support from the owners of the nest, in fact he is harassed and discouraged from performing his duties at every nest he checks. But he perseveres because that is his job and he must perform it regardless of public opinion.

There are many selfless dedicated animal volunteers that perform thankless tasks like this every day of the year to keep our natural areas open and operating at peak efficiency. Without them we would be overcome with problems that we would be hard pressed to solve ourselves, so we thank you Chief Inspector Long-tailed Weasel and all others like you for doing what needs to be done. Because of you Nature is a better place.



Bear Facts



Periodically we here at The Institute go out on the World Wide Web to check facts that are available to our readers regarding some of the wildlife they may be interested in. We are fact checkers. As you might imagine there is a lot of information out there, some of it good and some of it downright wrong. Or at least misinterpreted. We set our official fact gleaners to work gleaning and they visited some bear websites to check out those bear statements. This was done because we get so many cards and letters asking for fun-filled facts about bears.

Here are just a few of those facts that we found out there that need further explanation or correction to make them complete and more accurate or even believable.

First bears, and in this case grizzly bears, have been around for a long time. At least since 2005 when this picture was taken by our Director with one of the first legitimate digital cameras available. They may have been around longer than that but if so not many people knew about them because there weren’t any digital photos taken of them. This was back in the dawn of the digital age when 6 megapixels was considered to be the height of photographic technology. Many new species were being discovered then and documented using this new photographic tool, so we feel confident in correcting or adding information to the wealth of information about grizzly bears out there on the web.

Fact: A male bear is called a boar or a he-bear. A female bear is called a sow or a she-bear. A group of bears is called a sleuth or sloth. We can find no reason to dispute this fact although we have found that actually calling these bears he-bear, or she-bear to their faces makes them anxious and somewhat touchy, so we don’t recommend it. We have also called a group of them a sleuth and found that it made them all look at us appraisingly so we don’t recommend doing that either. Your results may vary.

Fact: Bears have been known to eat almost anything, including snowmobile seats, engine oil, and rubber boots. We can find no corroborating evidence to support this fact so we cannot endorse it. We can state however that a determined bear will eat the entire door off a motorhome if there are ding-dongs inside.

Fact: In a similar vein we heard that in 2008, a Canadian man was attacked by a grizzly bear. He survived the attack by playing dead, even when the bear began to gnaw on his scalp. The bear eventually lost interest and went away. The bear did take his watch, an undetermined amount of travelers checks and a can of bear spray however, plus his iPod but inexplicably not the ear buds. We believe this fact to be true as we have personally seen bears with iPods on several occasions.

Fact: During hibernation, a bear does not defecate. Its body can somehow recycle body waste into protein—a process scientists still do not understand. This is just so wrong that we can’t even address it. What kind of sick mind makes this stuff up.

Fact: The lips of bears are not attached to their gums, which make their lips look rubbery. This is true. It is also why they sound like Mick Jagger when they talk.

Fact: The most accurate way to determine the age of a bear is to count the rings in a cross-section of its tooth root under a microscope. We have found that this might be true but have been unable to substantiate it due to no one ever surviving the attempt to complete the procedure.

Fact: Bears are very smart and have been known to roll rocks into bear traps to set off the trap and eat the bait in safety. Yes this is true. What should be added however is that bears will often force tourists or other interested parties to carry the rocks for them under threat of doing them bodily harm if they don’t and then extorting them into bringing them more bait on a regular basis. Many unsuspecting people enter into bear territory completely unaware of the Bearsa Nostra and pay a huge price for their ignorance.

Fact: Bears are bowlegged. This gives them better grip and balance. Ummmm, on what? We believe this is bogus.

Fact: Grizzly bears use growls, roars and snorts to communicate with each other. They also text, send short but well written notes to each other, and wave excitedly when encountering old friends.

Fact: You can recognize grizzly bears by the hump on their back. The hump is made up of muscles. This is only partially true. It is accurate to say the hump is made up of muscles but it is just as accurate to say that the hump is due to the bear being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often large heavy branches will fall off the trees as the bear is walking through the forest, striking the bear one hell of a whack. This results in a big knot or swelling on its back that takes a long time to go down.

Fact: Unlike many mammals, bears can see in color. True. They also see things that aren’t there. They get emotional upon seeing a rainbow. And they take offense at people who dress unfashionably. This why so many bear attack victims are found to be wearing plaid pants or Bermuda shorts with black socks and wife beater t-shirts. Or women in solid color pant suits like the ones Hillary Clinton used to wear.

Fact: Bears rarely discipline their children. This is patently untrue. Look at the cubs eye in the picture above. He was mouthy and just one quick smack later he was perfectly behaved.

These are just a few of the facts floating around on the web that needed clarification. We hope that this has been helpful and has made your understanding of our wild brethren, the bear, more complete. This has been an unsolicited service of The Institute.  Remember our motto, We’re from The Institute and we’re here to help. And we hope we do.




Buffalo Spawn



Boy oh boy oh boy are we here at *The Institute excited. It’s Spring and time for one of the greatest, if not the most unlikely, spectacles ever to occur in Nature. We’re talking about the Buffalo Spawn that happens every April along the Firehole river in Yellowstone National Park. This phenomenon was first discovered several years ago by one of our free range wildlife photographers working on a separate project in Yellowstone and we have been fortunate to document this amazing process ever since.

The Institute, as has been noted many times in the past, has many ongoing projects underway at all times and the one our photographer was working on at the time this spawning phenomenon was noted, was a study on why river banks are just wide enough to accommodate the water that flowed through them and no wider, when he noticed strange behavior in the buffalo herds. The buffalo began gathering at the riverside jostling and shoving each other until they began to frantically enter the water and begin moving up-stream. Sometimes singly or in pairs, cows and bulls alike struggled upstream against the current in a single-minded desire to reach the shallows at the headwaters of the river to begin their spawning.

No obstacle was too great to keep them from moving ever upstream, clamoring over rocks and boulders, leaping mightily up water falls, their coats and horns glistening in the sun as they swam exhaustedly against the raging current, struggling until they reached that final tributary where they had been created many years ago. There under the light of a full moon the cows released their eggs and the bulls their sperm and as the river slowly allowed fertilization the eggs containing the new buffalos began to tumble downstream through rapids and wide gentle bends until catching up against a snag lying across the  stream, or a pebble bed where they could sink into safety amongst the stones and germinate, the eggs rested, began to grow, and thereby begin a new generation of buffalo.

Life is never a sure thing here in Yellowstone and the eggs were at constant risk of being found and devoured by predators. Wolves hungry as only wolves can be searched constantly along the riverbanks looking for egg clusters that had attached to rocks or plants along the shore and finding them, greedily devoured them for the protein that future young buffalo calves could provide them while in their embryonic state.

Grizzlies could be seen out in the middle of the river casually turning over great snags, the remains of giant trees that had fallen into the river to float downstream until they lodged themselves in the shallows and found a permanent home. Ripping the snags apart with their tremendously strong forearms and sharp claws, the egg clusters of the new buffalo generation were easy pickings for the mammoth beasts to find and consume.

But life always finds a way. And many of the eggs escaped detection and over time developed into their next phase of development which of course is the ‘buffpole’ stage where they began to grow their little hooves and tails and assume the shape we recognize as ‘Buffalo’. By now they had been fed steadily by the nutrients in the river and were beginning to break free from the egg sack that had enveloped them. If the light was just right these small fry could be seen forming little groups or herds, galloping from one place of safety in the water to another, gaining strength and nimbleness needed to leave the confines of the river and move on to land to begin their new lives as the Giants of the Plains, the buffalo.

Once established on land the new young buffalo, now known as ‘calves’, would be adopted by an adult female or ‘cow’ and be nursed and shown how to graze. They grew rapidly and were now totally independent of the river from which they formed. Yet you can still see some remnants of the behavior established in their early stages, such as when they gather in large groups or ‘herds’ and run thundering from one place to another for no apparent reason. This is a hold over from their schooling behavior when they were freshly formed fry in the river, and now it has become established as part of their genetic behavior on the land.

If you want to observe this spawning behavior of the buffalo you must hurry to Yellowstone because it doesn’t last long. Once it starts the buffalo are tireless in their obsession to get upstream and complete the spawning process that ensures that the new herd will be replenished. It is often over before you arrive, in fact if you are reading this now in May, you’ve already missed it. Sorry, but we can assure you that it does happen as proven by the huge number of buffalo seen grazing in the vast meadows of Yellowstone National park. After all where else could they have come from.

* Note: For those of you unfamiliar with The Institute and what it does, please see the page labeled The Institute on the Menu Bar above. That should explain everything. You shouldn’t have one single question remaining regarding The Institute after reading it. None. For those of you favored few who already know about the Institute, Nevermind. Return to your daily activities. Thank you for your support.


We Pause For A Special Announcement



Today is my sister’s birthday. She is just under 126 years old but doesn’t look a day over 90. You know they say that 90 is the new 70, I think they say that but if they don’t they should because she doesn’t look a day over 70 either. She has been my sister for as long as I can remember with only the occasional break, where she went off to be someone else’s sister for awhile. Those times never stuck and she always came back and was my sister again. That’s family closeness no matter how you look at it.

We were stuck with each other through many of life’s trials and tribulations where one thing or another always seemed to be happening. She would often run away, which is why mom always kept her in a harness, much to the horror of anyone seeing us out in public. But she never ran far. I mean she didn’t cross state lines or anything. We had a lot of fun stuff happen while we were kids, We had bunk beds back then and she had the top bunk and she would like stick her finger in the light bulb socket and it would blow her completely out of bed where she would land on me screaming. She screaming, not me. I would start screaming afterwards.  Of course the folks would come running in expecting the worst until finally they got used to it. I never did and to this day will often wake up in a cold sweat thinking a half-electrocuted person is falling on me.

In the image above I had just told her that I would never ever under any circumstances ever forget her birthday. Of course she believed me then and still does to this day. I was quite believable back then as you can see by my serious demeanor and she, although young, and very good looking for a sister, was quite gullible so it all worked out.

But I have to say this. She is the best sister a brother could ever have and I love her with all my heart. This is in spite of the fact that she categorically denies me the right to come and spend the winter down in Texas with her and the long suffering, I mean happy, Paul and their mean little dog Megan. But then you can’t expect things to be perfect even in the best of families.

Happy Birthday Marcia. I love you. Your less than serious, but totally honest brother, Dwight.

P.S. You told me you’re were giving up birthdays, but then you would always tell me stuff, so it’s not my fault if I’m almost nearly late with saying Happy Birthday. You need to remind me sooner, or I’m telling. OK, Happy Birthday then.

High Desert Sunset



We had a beautiful sunset this evening at The Institute and it got me thinking about other sunsets I’ve seen around the area. Like this one down in Arches National Park. Because we travel so much our schedule gets pretty darn hectic you know, what with having to look at stuff to see if it’s pretty enough to photograph, then get in a good spot so all the photographic bits are in the right places, finding the camera and getting it untangled from under the seat where it got kicked when we made a burger run and the lens hood got all cocked funny and you have to wrench it off so it sits right, then figuring out the settings and making adjustments to the camera, getting all cheesed off because the flash card wasn’t formatted and you have to stop and do that otherwise the sky comes out all maroon color, I mean it’s lucky we get a sunset picture taken at all.

Then of course there’s the timing of the shot. You got to get it just right otherwise it just looks like noon or 3 in the afternoon or 11:30 in the morning. Some photographers make a big hairy deal about getting to the picture site real early and getting all their gear sorted out and acting like they’re all professional and everything, but then by the time sunset hits they’re all whacked out, bored stupid, and taking a nap in the back seat and miss the whole deal. Other’s have been dawdling, stopping to read all the signs on the side of the road, checking their email, making calls, letting the dog out to do its business, watching other photographers to see what they’re shooting, eating the rest of the potato salad from lunch so it doesn’t go bad, and then they realize “Holy Mackerel it’s dark out, I’ve missed sunset”.

We at The Institute are trained professionals and don’t make dorky mistakes like that. We have it together. We instinctively know where the best shots are, exactly what time the sun will be perfect for setting, how to get all the stuff in the picture that makes it one of those that makes you go “Whoa, man, Look here, this is far out”. This is why we’re so freaking famous. If you check out the photo closely you’ll see that everything that is in it is supposed to be there. There’s ground and sky and rocks all over the place, mountains, bushes, everything you need. We pride ourselves on that. We don’t leave good stuff out. The timing in the shot is like super excellent for the right sunset spectacular lollapalooza look, because we got that stuff down cold and we even got the right kind of clouds in there. Have we got this nailed or what.

There’s some kind of rule or fact, or probably somebody just pulled it out of the back of their long johns, that you have to take like 12 billion and eight sunset photos to get one good one. We here at the Institute say BullPucky! our results are better than that. In fact we’ve gone out when the sun was going down and gotten hallway decent shots of sunset activity several nights in a row. We’re just that good. But then that’s just our and half the English-speaking people of the world’s opinion, so what do we know. Tomorrow when the sun goes down we’re going out and photograph it, I bet those shots will be good too.