Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Elk Rut, Photography, & Thoughts

For me, every August the anticipation begins building for the elk rut and for autumn, two of my favorite things. The days are spent looking for those very first signs of either, almost wishing time along at a faster pace. Before you know it, both are upon you and both will be over in the blink of an eye. I suppose as a photographer that briefness of the experience drives one to try and capture everything they possibly can, to preserve the memories of the season. When it comes to photography my thoughts on this are changing a bit, but more on that later.

Every elk rut in Pennsylvania seems to have it's own identity if you will, something that sets it apart from years past. Some years things are moving along as soon as the calendar turns to September, other years the activity seems to trickle out in spurts. So far, I would have to say that this year is shaping up as a typical year and seemingly better in terms of overall elk activity from last year. Granted, that may be the case in the places I happen to be out and about, and not representative of the elk range as a whole.

Early Afternoon In Elk Country

As it stands today, I have already been fortunate enough to watch and photograph several outstanding bulls. In fact, there seems to be a good number of bulls out there that currently are or are on the cusp of being something special. One thing that is standing out for me this year is the lack of bulls with large harems of cows. Just a few years ago it was nothing to see a bull with twenty, thirty, or more cows in his harem. Now, it seems they have a handful at best for the most part.

A young bull in the pre-dawn light.

It used to be that while photographing the elk I would be happy just to get a shot and to be honest as those images start building up they seem more and more generic. Basically, in the popular photography spots you will have numerous photographers all photographing the same thing. It can be interesting to see what others take from the experience in comparison to your own photographs but in these circumstances it can be hard to get anything truly unique. I go to these places, especially if there is not much going on elsewhere, and it is still possible to extract something different than everyone else, but I would rather be somewhere getting shots others are not. For me photography seems to have moved beyond just getting a picture of something, there needs to be another element to it or it just feels empty anymore. At times lately I have begun to question why I lug all of this equipment around, then I will capture something that seems to make it worthwhile. Sometimes it seems, seems mind you, that I was more creative when I was carrying a point and shoot camera everywhere. I don't know, somewhere along the line something seems to have been lost. I guess it's that way in anything you do, it is hard to keep that sense of excitement and 'wonderment' as things become old hat.

Getting A Drink

Open Wide

In Pursuit

Normally in the down time between morning and evening elk excursions I will do a bit of trout fishing to pass the time. The streams are still low and they really aren't much fun to fish when they are this way. I did catch a nice brown trout when I floated a mini-hopper pattern along an undercut bank. After that I decided to quit as the fish seem stressed enough as it is with the conditions they are enduring.

Fall wildflowers are in bloom and line the trails through the woods and along the streams.

By the time the calendar turns to October the elk rut is beginning to wind down. Really, the elk rut and the goldenrod bloom seem to be intertwined. Both begin to some degree in August, peak in September, and begin to fade in early October. It is amazing to me how quickly the month of September went by this year, though it seems the older you get the more that seems to be the case.

A near full moon and being surrounded by bugling, it doesn't get any better.

Herding Display

In the Rain

There is still some rut behavior and activity to be found in the coming month, along with the fall colors and less and less people to deal with as the month wears on. It can almost be more enjoyable in a way but the call of elk country in September will always be hard to top...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Brown Thrasher Takeover

Every year for the past five or so years there have been Brown Thrashers that have shown up, usually in mid-April, in the woods behind the house. They are very visible for about a month after they arrive and then they disappear for the most part when it comes time to start nesting and raising their chicks.

This year, in late May, I was greeted by a fuzzy Brown Thrasher fledgling sitting on the garden fence one day. I had seen them on occasion before, but little did I know the show was just about to begin.

Shot through the garden fence, hence the strange lines through the image.

For the next month, and still to this day, the four fledglings that I counted have decided to make the garden their hangout. It has been an interesting glimpse into the lives of these birds. I have been able to watch the progression of the parents working non-stop to feed them, to the female leaving it up to the male while she goes off to begin the next brood, to the young ones starting to forage for themselves, and eventually fending for themselves and taking to the trees.

Other than the long tail and fantastic song of the Brown Thrasher, they are known for their piercing yellow eyes.

I never realized until this year that the young ones start out life with blue eyes.

Of the four, it seems that three of them always stuck together while the fourth was off on it's own. It must have been the most well fed while on the nest as it became independent much sooner than the other three.

As of this writing there are only two still hanging around and they are chased by the parents whenever they have an encounter. Their eyes are still blue but it seems to be fading with each passing day. I've witnessed the adults gathering insects and flying off so I assume the second brood has hatched. I'm not sure if I'll get to witness the same show again but it has been an enjoyable experience and the young ones have been comical to watch, each seems to have it's own personality. The garden will seem empty when they are finally gone.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Early June In Elk Country

Last Wednesday I made a trip up to the elk range, it was my first trip back since early May. Since then antlers have been growing, fawns and calves were being born, and the landscape has begun to take on the more mature look of summer. In about a week the days will begin getting shorter once again, believe it or not.

While out and about in the Quehanna Wild Area I came upon my first fawn of the season. It was standing there looking at me, probably hoping I would pass by without noticing. I took a few snapshots and moved on as to not disturb it or it's mother who may not be far off.

I didn't see any elk calves on my trip, more than likely they are well hidden and not traveling with their mothers quite yet. I prefer to leave them in peace until they are ready to show themselves on their own anyway. I did see plenty of bulls with various sizes of antler growth, mostly determined by the age class the bull was in. All were on the young side and were either hanging out with other bulls or with several cows. Such was the case with this young bull I photographed along Dents Run. He was with several other small bulls and a few cows.

Most of the bulls I saw today will be relegated to being satellite bulls when the rut starts, some of them won't even reach that status. Occasionally one of these younger bulls will get a harem of cows in September and start to think they are the 'real deal' but that pipe dream usually doesn't last very long. Some will relive that dream come mid-October and beyond but most of the cows will have been bred by then so it's mostly going through the motions of being a herd bull.

I did see some grassland birds that I've always wanted to photograph, though the photo opportunities were not great. I saw quite a few Bobolinks and another bird that I actually had to look up the identification on, the Dickissel.

Occasionally, if you know when and where to look, there are spots in elk country that reveal their past even though man has tried  his best to remove all traces of what once was. They endure, harkening back to a simpler time. Most of todays visitors to the elk range will be oblivious to them, passing them off as just part of nature.

It was a good trip, it usually is. One can't help but look forward to the elk rut, but it's best to enjoy each season for what it is.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Black Eye for Pennsylvania Elk?

A Pennsylvania Bull Elk

In 2013 the hunter who won the RMEF bull tag for Pennsylvania harvested a near state record bull, it may in fact be the new record but I don't keep up with such things. The significance of this event is that when fellow PA hunters became aware of who this person actually was it created a bit of controversy in the hunting community. The hunter, Tod Reichert, had been involved in an incident with the 2007 Washington state Governor's Tag bull. The case was not settled until 2012...

"According to Micheal C. Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for Eastern District of Washington, Reichert bought the 2007 Eastside any-elk Governor’s Auction Tag for around $47,000. He hired Wick to provide guide services for his hunt, and apparently just to make sure, also hired a helicopter to spot animals — illegal in Washington.
In December, Reichert killed a bull in the Umatilla National Forest with Wick’s help but outside of the area that the guide was licensed to provide outfitting services.
Later, Reichert falsely claimed that Wick had not provided professional help nor had he paid any money for his services, according to the U.S. Attorney.
Then, in 2008, Wick again provided help in the forest to that year’s Governor’s Tag buyer (which set the man back $65,000), but at the time, Wick was not authorized to provide guide services, according to the feds.
Both defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury last December.
Reichert was sentenced to a two-year probation that also stipulates he can’t enter or remain in any national forest for any recreational purpose."

After the controversy of Mr. Reichert's PA bull, wording was added to the new bill that created the KECA bull tag and continued the RMEF auction tag. The wording added to the bill reads as follows...

"  Background check.--A recipient selected to receive a license under subsection (b) or (c) must be subjected to a background check prior to being awarded the license. If one or more serious game law violations resulting in license revocation within the preceding ten years, or three or more game law violations within the preceding ten years are found, the license may not be awarded to the recipient and another recipient shall be chosen."

For all intents and purposes this wording was added due to the stink that followed the 2013 RMEF tag hunt and ironically, this person has won the same PA tag again for 2016. Apparently he still falls outside of the parameters of exclusion, however there is a twist that has come to light. There have been charges filed for a bull that was killed by Mr. Reichert last year on a Washington state raffle tag hunt. Allegedly the bull he killed was shot in a management unit that was not even open to the harvest of branch antlered bulls. 

My take on all of this? I do believe people make mistakes and deserve second chances, however, there is also the old saying of 'fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.' It would appear that this person, in their pursuit of trophy bulls, cannot steer clear of trouble. The guides who he used the last time around called him a stand up guy who admitted to past mistakes and had learned his lesson. Who steps up to guide him this time around and what do you say about him now? The potential is there to be made the fool and harm your reputation as well. I guess that comes with the territory of giving 'controversial' people the benefit of the doubt.

More than likely this new case will also be dragged out and no doubt Mr. Reichert will keep his PA bull tag for this year. If convicted in this new case it will be a black eye for Pennsylvania, the elk, the RMEF, the sportsman of PA, Elk County Outfitters, and whatever outfit guides him this year. At some point you have to say enough is enough and get these types out of the running for these tags, it is not worth the bad publicity they bring no matter how much money they put into elk conservation. To look the other way and say nothing or not act because of money is selling out and bringing shame and questionable values/motives into the whole process. The elk and hunting deserve better than that.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Thoughts on the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 Lens

Since shortly before Christmas, I have been photographing with the new Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR lens. I have been happy shooting with my old 300mm f/4 with teleconverters for the past few years but found the new lens too irresistible to not at least try out. I am not a professional photographer or reviewer but will give my thoughts on this lens after using it almost exclusively for wildlife photography the past three plus months.

For a little back history, I have tried two different copies of the Tamron 150-600 lens and came away overall unimpressed. My main beef with this lens is the random loss of autofocus that comes and goes without rhyme or reason. To regain  autofocus one must temporarily disconnect and then reconnect the lens. That was unacceptable to me. In addition to that, the lens at 600mm was fairly soft and needed to be stopped down to at least f/8 to get usable results. The low light results from the lens were not the greatest and even decent shots in decent light seemed as if you were shooting through an extra pane of glass.

The experience with the Tamron left me with no desire to try the new Nikon lens when it first came out and the samples on photo sharing sites didn't really impress me either. Still, a few respected reviewers had high praises for the lens which left some intrigue in the back of my mind. Eventually I gave in and my copy arrived the week before Christmas. My first overall impression was that the build quality was better than I was expecting for a consumer super zoom. The lens is mostly plastic but it has a very solid feel to it, the zoom ring seems to have just the right amount of resistance and does not feel stiff or too loose. The VR and MF/AF switches are solid and would not be easily moved by accident. The lens is big, and fairly heavy, much more so than my 300 f/4.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 3600, 1/400, f/5.6
The autofocus on the new lens is not quite as fast as my 300 f/4, with or without teleconverters, but it is not far off. It seems smoother and less 'chattery' when in continuous focus mode. There also seems to be less hunting for focus. Even with the 1.4 TC II attached, there was not a real noticeable drop in AF performance, though it then becomes and f/8 lens.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 650mm (1.4TCII), ISO 1250, 1/500, f/9

The VR (Nikon speak for image stabilization) on this lens is nothing short of incredible and is the best by far on any lens I have shot with to date. Even with the 1.4 TC II attached, giving 700mm of reach, it is fairly easy to get sharp results with shutter speeds of 1/250 or below...handheld. With the bare lens at 500mm I have got tack sharp results with shutter speeds as low as 1/40 handheld. Your mileage may vary based on technique and steadiness.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 500, 1/500, f/5.6

Image be blunt, considering that this is a consumer super zoom, I am blown away. This lens is sharp wide open at every focal length. With the 1.4 TC attached, which makes the lens an f/8 lens, it is a bit soft wide open but sharpens up nicely by simply stopping down to f/9. In fact, at f/9 and 700mm this lens is better than the Tamron lenses I tried. The colors, contrast, sharpness, and clarity of this lens are excellent for what it is. Compared to my 300 f/4 I would say that there is a small micro-contrast penalty but it is very small. The zoom is sharper than my prime at 500mm when using the 1.7 TC on the prime. At 300mm and 420mm the zoom is very close in image quality, very close.  The bokeh of the zoom lens is very nice. I slightly prefer the bokeh of the prime but there is not a big difference.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 280mm (1.4 TC II), ISO 500, 1/1000, f/9

These are just some of my general thoughts on the lens, it is late and I'm not going to go into too much detail. At this point, to me, this lens offers more than my 300 f/4 in terms of versatility and being ready for just about any situation that will be encountered. Even at 300mm with the prime, there have been times when it has been too much lens, even on full frame. The older I get the more I try to keep it simple. The thought of not swapping out teleconverters is appealing. The kicker in all of this is that there is barely any penalty, if any, in terms of image quality. There is still a difference in rendering between a prime and a zoom, with this comparison it is there but I am hard pressed to pinpoint what the difference is. To me, the photos from the prime have more of a film look to them, I guess...

In the end I really only need and want one wildlife lens and at this point I have yet to come to a decision. It is turning out to be harder than I thought it was going to be. 700mm on full frame with very good image quality is very addicting, at times you get so caught up in that kind of reach that you can forget just how good the bare lens is. I guess that's a good problem to have. If you would like to see these and more of my images with this lens in a bit larger size they can be found here.

This is not the review I had planned on but it was now or never. I'll check this post in a day or so to see if it was put together coherently enough, again, it is late.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Spring Getaway and Random Thoughts

Wednesday, one of the most spring-like days so far this year, I decided to take a drive up to elk country if for no other reason than to just get away for a bit. There was no real plan and for once my main objective wasn't to photograph elk. While cruising the back roads of the Elk State Forest, the Quehanna Wild Area, and nearby locations I came upon vehicles parked along the roads that were no doubt owned by folks who were out looking for shed elk antlers. It is getting to be prime time for that activity and I did see a couple of bulls that had lost their headgear. In the past I may have joined in the hunt but somewhere along the line I have come to the conclusion that I no longer have the desire to possess such things. If I stumble upon one during my wanderings, fine, but I feel no need to go out of my way to look for one. Something along the lines of the old saying if you love something set it free, I guess.

I saw quite a few elk on this trip, mostly cows and young elk, a few spikes, and a couple of bulls that had already shed. I never pulled out the camera though as there were really no compelling shots to be taken. That, and the fact that conditions were prime for heat shimmer (atmospheric distortion) to play havoc with photography. In the open areas where the elk were grazing you could literally see the heat waves coming up off the ground. To try and get sharp photos in those conditions is an exercise in futility.

On a whim, I headed over to Shagger's Inn to see if the ospreys were back yet, they weren't. Instead I came upon a group of Tundra Swans that were taking a break along their migration path. They were joined by some Canada Geese and a variety of ducks. At one point a pair of Red-tailed Hawks got into a ruckus over something on the opposite shore before heading off and out of sight. With blue skies and a nice south breeze blowing it was a perfect spot to find a log to sit and take it all in for awhile.

The rest of the afternoon was spent cruising the dirt roads just to see what I could see. Occasionally I would stop and take a short hike along a stream or trail. I was reminded that it has been awhile since I have gone on a 'serious' fishing trip, probably not since last spring. I still love trout fishing but think I burned myself out on it to a degree over the years and to be honest I've been on somewhat of a break from it for awhile. It's been over a year since I last tied a fly. I'm getting the sense that I'm coming to the other side of that period though as the old feelings are once again stirring, maybe it's just the weather. I'm not sure it will get back to the intensity it was at a few years ago though, as that is what led to the exhaustion of the experience.

In the morning I had taken a ride up Winslow Hill and there was a large group of trucks and equipment gathered at the Woodring Farm. It didn't occur to me what was going on at the time, as there was literally nothing going on at the time. I took a swing back around in the evening and saw that they had done a prescribed burn at that property and at other places on the game lands.

I will note here that I took the photo below from the new PGC viewing area at the old Gilbert farm. It is the first time I have actually walked out to the actual viewing circle since it has been built, as it has never felt right to me to do so. Taking a photo of the burn in the distance I glanced down at the field below and to be honest it felt a bit sickening. The view was nice and all but the place had lost its soul. So many memories from this spot but it is just not the same, I don't think I'll ever get used to it. I may never walk back out to the viewing area again either.

Behind me the 'progress' of the area continues as it appears that a fancy new sign is being built to mark the new parking lot and viewing area, at least that is my best guess. I wonder how all of this money that has been spent in the name of tourism could have been better put to use to actually help the elk and protect the lands that they roam.

This is the first blog post I have sat down to write in awhile, it is work to keep a blog going on a regular basis. I have a few posts I started but never finished and may regret that later. It is nice to go back and read the posts I have saved from my old blog and I guess I did it more for me than for entertainment or information for anyone else. Sometimes it just feels like anything there is to say has already been said. In any event, it was a nice getaway for a day and perhaps this will inspire me to write down more of my adventures.