When I hear the word bison, I immediately think of Yellowstone National Park. Large herds of bison roaming the snow-covered grasslands, plowing their heads through the snow to reach the frozen vegetation underneath. But I’ve discovered there are several other locations across the US to view wild bison, such as Montana, Kentucky, California, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Just east of Syracuse, Utah, about 30 minutes north of downtown Salt Lake City, is a wonderful place called Antelope Island State Park, a mountainous island surrounded by the Great Salt Lake, and connected to the mainland by a 7-mile long causeway, the original sandbar, the only link to the island. Antelope Island is home to a free-roaming herd of 500-700 bison. The lowlands of the island are covered in a shrub-steppe habitat which offers a variety of vegetation for the 1,000-2,000-pound herbivores to forage on.
My daughter and I spent the afternoon on the island while she was attending her online courses. Not far past the visitors center, we found several bison resting and grazing among the shrubs and grasses, a safe distance from the edge of the road. It was so exciting and felt like we were in our own mini Yellowstone! We didn’t have 2 feet of snow but it was barely above freezing and we could see the bison’s exhaling breath as he slowly moved among the shrubs.
A cyclist we had passed earlier stopped by our car and asked if he could ride alongside our car when we were ready to move on because the bison were now at the edge of the road. Bison are quite unpredictable and are known to suddenly charge for no apparent reason so I was more than happy to assist him in getting past the bison safely.
Adult bison are the largest mammals in North America, measuring 6 feet tall at the hump, and 9 feet in length, roughly the same size as most cars. And don’t forget their 2-feet long sharp horns. Given their massive size, they are still able to run up to 40 miles per hour. Bison use their heavy heads as snowplows in deep snow and swing it side to side while grazing the shrub-steppe and grasses. They get the strength needed to move their 50-75-pound head from the large pile of muscles in the hump that stretch over the shoulders.
Antelope Island covers 28,000 acres and is 15 miles long and 5 miles wide. Exposed rocks on the southern end of the island are 17 billion years old, the same age as rocks in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While the bison don’t wander into the upper mountains, they can be found along the base, grazing on the grasses.
As the sun begins to set, the pink sky glows on the snow-covered Wasatch Range behind us. As we start our return drive across the causeway, we see a bald eagle sitting on the frozen lake. An afternoon on the island was the best school day for my daughter, and it was a great afternoon for viewing bison, too.
Last weekend I finally traveled outside of the Tri-Cities. And not just to the next county. I ventured all the way to Salt Lake City, Utah. My daughter and I went to visit my son who is a freshman at the U.
We decided to check out a couple of wildlife refuges along the way. Friday's stop was at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge in Caldwell, Idaho. It was a good rest stop, only a handful of visitors, and there was cellular service so my daughter could attend her online classes.
I walked along the sagebrush trails while she attended her classes. The bees were busy collecting more pollen before cooler fall temperatures kicked in and prepped them for hibernation. Notice the orange pocket, or pollen pants, on this little guy.
We left SLC Monday morning and our wildlife refuge stop was at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, only one hour north in Brigham City, Utah. This refuge is viewed primarily by driving the 12-mile one-way loop. There are observation platforms but on our first stop, I got out of the car and discovered that there were millions of mosquitoes, so it was decided that we'd view with the windows up.
After squishing several mosquitoes that invaded our inner car sanctuary, we headed for the loop drive in search of the white-faced ibis. It was noted on the refuge's web page that the ibis should still be there through the end of September, so I crossed my fingers that we would still find some.
We saw several birds along the drive including white pelicans, sparrows, and western grebes. Our visit must have been between seasons as there were some individuals rather than large flocks. On the last turn of the loop route, I caught a glimpse of a small group of birds along the edge of the pond. With the sun not very high in the sky and the tall grasses blocking light, I could just make out their silhouette. I almost missed them because they blended into the vegetation pretty well. I believe we found the end-of-season stragglers of the largest population of white-faced ibis in Utah.
Because of the mosquitoes, I had to shoot with the lens against the window. And because of the lighting, we can't see the white marking on their face or their red legs and red eyes. While we can see their distinctive curved bill, we can't tell that it is also red. This long curved bill makes it easy to probe the mud in the shallow water for aquatic invertebrates.
I was still quite excited to see this small crew of white-faced ibis. Their habitat range is west through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and through the mid-western states from North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico. They'll spend the winter in Mexico and along the coast of eastern Texas and western Louisiana and then return to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge next April when they'll mate, nest, and raise their young. And when I head down to SLC in the early summer to help my son move from the dorm to an apartment, I'll add some travel time to see the white-faced ibis again. And I'll wear mosquito netting.
Whether you’re going on a short photo walk around Bateman Island or a longer hike in the Cascades, these tools should always be in your camera/hiking bag.
I hope you find these tools helpful for your camera bag. Do you have any additional items you take with you? Please share.
Learning to fly is hard work. Especially when faced with natural and non-natural obstacles. The osprey nest I have been watching since the spring has already gone through the loss of its first clutch and the rebuilding of their nest. The second clutch has been successful with the mating pair having 1 offspring. He’s grown quickly and now it’s time for him to prepare to leave the nest and forage on his own. First things first, he must learn to fly.
I didn’t get to the osprey nest until just after sunrise. A flock of white pelicans caught my attention while I was on my way to the nest, so I stopped to photograph them in the sunrise light. They’re so awkwardly graceful and fun to watch.
When I arrived at my usual viewing location alongside the road, I rolled down the passenger window so I could sit on the ledge. As I rolled down the driver’s window, I glanced across the road and saw an osprey perched low on a branch. It was the juvenile. I had missed his initial, possibly ungraceful, descent from the nest. This was his first day learning to fly.
He remained there, looking around for a while, startling at the occasional sound of an airplane taking off from the nearby airport, or just resting and closing his eyes. I guess the newfound physical exertion was exhausting.
He finally decided to give his wings another try. He spread them wide and flapped several times but remained on the branch. After a brief rest, he tried again, and this time made a long leap off the branch and behind the shrubs.
Several more leaps brought him next to the wire fence. As I watched from my car, I quietly chanted “please don’t get caught on the fence” over and over. It turns out that he’s a pretty smart young bird, because he lowered his head and carefully walked between the horizontal wires. Whew. But now he was on the road side of the fence.
He made several more attempts at flight, strengthening those fragile wings. He was now on the wide rocky shoulder of the two-lane road, which very few passenger cars traveled along, but is frequented by big ag work trucks. While he was on the side of the road, he was relatively safe.
Now I already said that this young bird was “pretty smart”. Well, I retract that statement. He quickly became a not-so-smart young bird because he hopped and flapped himself right into the road. Luckily, there were no vehicles at that time. I kept willing the osprey to get off the road, but he wouldn’t go. I know he was tired, but he just didn’t understand the hazards facing him if he stayed there much longer. I wasn’t going to let him find out the hard way.
Then came the first truck. I yelled at the bird to move, but to no avail. I had to do something quick. From the side of the road I flagged down the truck. The driver stopped and asked if the bird was injured. I said “no” and explained what was happening. He got out of his truck and we shooed the juvenile off the road. I told the driver that we couldn’t touch him and hoped that our shooing him off the road wasn’t considered harassment, especially since we were trying to protect him.
The driver told me he would tell others he would see during the day to drive slowly through that area, per my request. Thank you, Mr. Truck Driver. I ended up stopping five trucks that morning because the osprey decided to hop back into the road. And all of them said they would let others know and that they’d take it slow through there for the next few days while the juvenile osprey strengthened his wings.
All those efforts paid off. I returned a couple days later and saw the juvenile in the nest with a parent. Yay! He had survived flight training.
Blue whales are the largest animals on earth, measuring up to 100 feet (30 m) in length. Their slow movements made them easy targets for whalers and they became dangerously close to becoming extinct. Even though the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Marine Mammal Protect Act (1972) were established, commercial whaling wasn’t outlawed until 1986. Whales still face threats from cargo ships. These enormous vessels typically travel at 24 knots (27miles per hour), which is quite fast on the water, and too fast to avoid any whales traveling in their path. The Vehicle Speed Reduction Initiative implemented by Santa Barbara County has been successful in getting the majority of vessels to reduce their speeds to 12 knots or less. This not only reduces whale strikes but reduces emissions which help with air quality.
Blue populations have slowly been increasing and today we have the opportunity to see them thriving.
My daughter and I were very lucky a couple weeks ago when we were out sailing near Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, California. We met up with my friend, Matt, a former POD dive club buddy, who I’ve actually not seen since moving away from California. We got back in touch through another diving and sailing buddy, Dos Amigos. My friends rock.
Matt took us sailing for the day. It was overcast, the water was calm, and there was barely enough wind to sail so we had a little motor assistance. Such a beautiful day. Captain Matt had Avery take the helm while we were leaving the harbor. She was quite nervous but handled it very well.
We left the harbor and were now in open water. It didn’t take long before we had our first visitor, a common dolphin mama and her baby. She was getting a fun lesson in bow riding but I’m afraid we may not have been going fast enough for them because they veered off after a few minutes. Several other common dolphins joined us, some bow riding, others leaping near us. We love dolphins. They are so fun and curious.
As we approached Anacapa, we heard a call over the radio that there was a whale sighted nearby. We tacked starboard and headed toward the other boats we saw gathering ahead. We hung back, watching and waiting. Twenty minutes went by and no one saw anything. The other boats began to pull away from that location. We decided to continue sailing so we tacked a 180 and began heading closer to the Anacapa arch. Almost immediately, I saw a spout in the distance. “Woo-hoo! Straight ahead!” The whale was heading in our direction, so we slowed down and let it come to us. After a couple of breaths and finally getting a view of its back, I could be certain that we were in the company of a blue whale. OMG. This was my first blue whale ever. It was so incredible!
It continued to surface a few times, releasing its misty exhalation, and then sounded, showing off its massive fluke. We were in quiet shock and awe and then the excitement broke out. It was so amazing. We were on a 30’ sail boat near the largest animal on the planet. We were seeing only a small portion of the whale, even though we could see its enormous blowhole, the length of its back, its itty bitty dorsal fin, and the massive fluke, which compares in width to a professional soccer goal (24 feet!). The majority of its 150 tons was still underwater.
Just as we’re grasping the shear enormousness of this whale, it surfaced but we didn’t see the exhale. We did see a pectoral fin standing straight up and then realized that the whale was lunge feeding. How unbelievably cool. We could see the throat pleats as the large mouth expanded and grabbed a mouthful of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans.
We watched it feed for about an hour. Being there on a quiet sailboat allowed the blue whale to forage undisturbed. And since the other boats had left, we had this blue whale all to ourselves. When it had had its fill, it started traveling away from the island. We hollered our goodbye’s and thank you’s for letting us be there with it. Truly a remarkable experience.
Our special time with this magnificent creature had come to an end but will forever live in our hearts and memory. And in images, of course.
I’m waiting to hear from Cascadian Research about the identity of this blue whale. Each whale dorsal fin and fluke is unique and by recording shape and any markings, scratches or scars, researchers are able to identify a whale at a later time and determine its activities and locations traveled. With blue whales, they also record the light markings along the backside for identification. As soon as I get an ID, I will share that with you.