Earlier this year, Lana and I traveled to Florida where I had the opportunity to spend some time photographing and filming manatees. Crystal River is known far and wide as one of the best places to see manatees, and we were lucky to time our visit with a cold front that sent temps dipping below freezing at night. During the coldest months of the winter, it is vital that manatees have access to warm freshwater springs for survival. If they are unable to warm themselves, manatees are susceptible to cold stress syndrome (basically manatee pneumonia), which is a significant cause of mortality for manatees. The springs of Crystal River are some of the last remaining natural refuges for manatees in Florida.
On our first night in Crystal River, we arrived at the hotel just in time to walk to the water’s edge and watch the sunset over Kings Bay. Under the orange sky, the water lapping at the docks was dark and murky. I remember remarking to Lana that we wouldn’t have much chance of seeing a manatee in these conditions, and she agreed. All the while, we were both fixated on something below the dock. A large gray shape that looked like a large stone, or the hull of a sunken boat. Suddenly, it dawned on us both simultaneously – a manatee! It surfaced right in front of us with a blast of air, and then one by one we spotted more and more manatees until it felt like we were surrounded. That moment was by far one of the most memorable wildlife “spots” of my lifetime!
The next morning we set out early for our first day in the water. Because of the cold temperatures, access to the warm springs was closed, ensuring that the manatees can rest without disturbance. We were still able to see plenty of manatees without venturing into the spring, as dozens of them filed by the boat on their way to the warm water. On my first swim, I quickly discovered a couple of things. First, despite their tranquil demeanor, a manatee moves very swiftly through the water. Second, the water was very cold! I have climbed all manner of frozen waterfalls and even slept in a snow cave in subzero temperatures, but I don’t think I have ever shivered as much as I did after getting out of that frigid water. As you reach the mouth of the springs, you can really feel how much warmer the water is.
I shot with a Nikon D850 paired with the 14-24 2.8 zoom on this trip loaded into an Ikelite dive housing. I’m very happy with this setup and the Ikelite housing makes all of the controls available, so there is very little difference between controlling the camera in and out of the water. The main things to remember when shooting in the water are to keep the lens at the wide end, keep the camera level, and don’t forget to focus. I set up back button focusing with a a wide net of focus points in AF-C mode. Since you and your subject are constantly drifting around in the water, you want to be sure you are continuously refocusing.
The town of Crystal River has a large tourism economy, and manatees are at the center of the region’s draw. There are numerous outfits that will take guests to one of the warm springs and offer a chance to swim with manatees. This has been a controversial practice, and during our time we saw a whole spectrum of good and bad behavior. Before considering a guide or getting in the water, take the time to learn manatee manners so that you are not inadvertently stressing the manatees during a critical time, and make sure that you are going with a licensed guide. The best guides will be the ones looking out for the well being of the manatees, calling out bad behavior, and presenting their trips as an opportunity to see manatees in their natural habitat and learn about them.
Boat collisions are one of the main threats to manatees. Manatees are often injured or killed by propellers when they are unable to get out of the way of fast moving boats. Virtually every manatee we saw had scars down its back, and researchers even keep books of photos of these scars to identify individual manatees. Manatees were recently downgraded from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but 2019 was the worst year on record for manatee deaths from boat collision. No wake zones and programs to educate boaters have been successful at curbing collisions in Kings Bay, but a broader reach is necessary to save manatees in other parts of their range.
On this trip, we created Manatee 360, a short documentary film in 360 degree “virtual reality”. The 360 degree format is incredible because when you put on a headset, it transports you right there into the water with the manatees – allowing you to get up close with the manatees in a way that you would never experience otherwise. While creating this film, Lana joined me in launching Just Float Films – our new production company dedicated to natural history and conservation storytelling. We are proud to share Manatee 360 with our friends in conservation at the Save the Manatees Club and the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Crystal River. We are also thankful to Wildlife Protection Solutions for making this all possible.
Manatee 360 is currently debuting at the 2020 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. For more information on screenings and to view a trailer visit http://justfloat.film/manatee-360
There is often some confusion among newcomers to Colorado between bighorn sheep and mountain goats. I often overhear this at places like Mount Evans, where you could very likely see both in the same day, or maybe even at the same time! I’ll admit, I was a little “fuzzy” on the differences when I started on my journey.
One of my first photos of bighorn sheep in Colorado came from Ouray, where these ewes were snacking on a hay bale along the side of the road. Whether that bale of hay fell off a truck, or whether someone put it out just for the sheep I couldn’t say, but these sheep were glad for it either way. At first glance, you might see the short horns and think “goat”, but these are indeed bighorn sheep ewes.
Both male and female sheep and goats have horns, but notice that the horns of the goat above are jet black, and grow upwards and back, not down and around the eye like the sheep. The coat of the mountain goat is white and shaggy compared to the short, brown hair of the bighorn sheep.
Another big clue is range – the mountain goat is only found in a few high altitude regions of Colorado. If you are at lower elevations, such as the canyon country near Salida or Colorado National Monument, it’s pretty likely you are seeing bighorn sheep, not mountain goats. The same is true for Rocky Mountain National Park, which is not home to any mountain goats.
I’ve photographed sheep in quite a few corners of Colorado, but Waterton Canyon remains one of the best places to see these animals. The sheep are often near, or even on, the road, and you can get some great shots without hauling a monster lens along. It’s no secret, so expect some company, but since the road is gated you’ll need to a few miles in to find the sheep, and this keeps the crowds down.
Another great place to see the “desert” subspecies of bighorn sheep is Colorado National Monument. Sheep are frequently seen along Rimrock Drive, so keep your eyes open on your way to the visitor’s center.
Whether it’s sheep or goats, you really can’t go wrong, both are fun to watch and photograph, and a couple of the most accessible subjects for wildlife photography in Colorado.
Holy sea cow, it’s 2020. When did that happen?
Ok, I know you’ve seen this post before. The one that starts with “Is been a long time since I’ve posted anything here…“
We might have some catching up to do. I’ve nearly completed my Colorado Mammals project. I’ve photographed every species on my original list that is known to exist in the state, and a few more that were somewhat unknown. I can’t wait to share the photos and the journey with you.
I’m still looking for the elusive wolverine. In 2019, I expanded my efforts outside of Colorado into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t cross paths with a gulo but that search will definitely continue in 2020.
In other news, I’m working towards a masters degree in biology through the Miami University Advanced Inquiry Program, which is a partnership with the Denver Zoo. I also joined Natural Habitat Adventures as an Expedition Leader in 2019 and couldn’t be more thrilled! It’s OK if you drool a little when you see the trips that they offer (I know I did).
In 2020, I’m continuing my work with Wildlife Protection Solutions where we have assembled some next level camera trapping technology to get photos out of the field faster and identify species or poachers quicker than ever. This is really exciting stuff that has the potential to help find and protect some of the planet’s most endangered species. No joke!
In addition to camera trapping, I’m working with WPS to produce some very unique films on the endangered species we are fighting to protect. We have some exciting plans up our sleeves, but all I’ll say for now is that I left a little clue a little earlier in this blog post that might hint at what the first film will be featuring…
Enough about me. This year is all about the mammals. I have a pile of photos, stories, and adventure lined up for 2020 as I share the journey that has been my Mammals of Colorado quest. I hope you join me for the ride!
Wishing you all the best in 2020!
Above A playful desert bighorn lamb in Colorado National Monument.
Finding the perfect backpack is a never-ending battle for me. I’ve bought so many backpacks trying to find something that works, and most often they end up for sale on Craigslist a few months later.
A nature photography backpack needs to do three things. First, it needs to carry your camera and accessories for a day in the field. Secord, it needs to have storage for extra clothes, food, and the other gear necessary to survive in the wild. Finally, it has to allow quick and easy access to the camera, ideally without taking the pack off or fiddling with too many zippers.
As a wildlife photographer, this third requirement is extremely important to me. My camera needs to be always ready for those fleeting moments when I cross paths with something like a Canada lynx (and, hopefully, one day a wolverine), and in this regard the MindShift Rotation packs are superior.
I picked up the Horizon 34L pack one year ago and have had a chance to spend some time with it. Prior to the Horizon, I typically used a LowePro PhotoSport 200 for fast and light hiking and various f-Stop packs for lugging around bigger kits with tripods and heavy lenses.
My current kit for hiking is the Nikon D850 paired with a Nikon 300 f4 PF. This combo will just barely fit into the waist pack of the Horizon in the vertical orientation, leaving room to carry up to two more lenses, which for me are typically the 24-70 2.8 (not the VR version) and a teleconverter. The 24-70 will also barely fit into the waist pack when mounted on the D850, although sometimes it is a little bit of a struggle to get the zipper to close. I suspect the newer and larger 24-70 VR would be worse, if it fit at all.
The Nikon D850 paired with a Nikon 300 f4 PF will just barely fit into the waist pack of the Horizon in the vertical orientation.
The Horizon waist pack has a mesh interior pocket under the lid for small accessories, and then a vertical sleeve intended for a field guide, map, or an iPad. The mesh pocket will hold my cable release, and an extra battery or memory card, but with the main compartment of the waist belt already bursting at the seams, this makes the situation worse, so I often avoid using it. The situation with the vertical sleeve is similar. I will sometimes carry a circular polarizing filter or a map, but even these items start to interfere with the ease of getting the camera into the main compartment and closing the zipper.
The Horizon can carry a tripod on the front of the pack, or by using the MindShift Tripod Suspension System. I’ll admit, I haven’t tried the suspension system, but I really can’t see myself ever using it. The straps on the front of the Horizon pack work okay to carry a small to medium sized tripod, but there is still a lot of flopping around due to the way that the straps are attached. At the very least, this is aggravating, but it is also potentially dangerous to have your load shifting and causing a loss of balance, so for longer hikes or more technical terrain it is good to have an extra length of webbing to cinch the tripod down with.
The Horizon has a nice size compartment for day hike essentials. It can comfortably fit a rain jacket, puffy, and fleece, with enough room left over for some food, water, and first aid/survival items. I’m not crazy about the zipper on the main compartment, and would perhaps rather have a drawstring closure. The lightweight zipper can be troublesome when the pack is very full and I anticipate this will be the first part of the pack to fail.
The lid has additional storage for things like sunglasses and a headlamp. I appreciate that they included a snap to keep your car keys from falling out on the talus. There is a front pocket that I use to carry my hat, gloves, and MicroSpikes, and a vertical zip side pocket that was designed with a hydration bladder in mind. After my camera and lenses, water is the heaviest thing in my pack, so when I carry a hydration bladder, I want the weight centered close to my body, not out to one side.
The pack does have the typical mesh interior sleeve for your hydration pouch, so you aren’t forced into using the side pocket. There is an opening for your hydration hose on the left side, so if that is that is the side you prefer to route your hose, you are in luck. Unfortunately, MindShift only provides one elastic loop about a third of the way down the shoulder strap to secure the drinking hose, so you’ll want to improvise something to keep the hose from flopping around.
I like that they have included a water bottle pocket, which I don’t use for water bottles, but rather to stash my trekking poles. I haven’t tried carrying this pack up a snow climb yet, but there is a single ice axe loop on the front and some webbing ladders to theoretically attach some crampons.
The waist pack has an attachment point on one side that I use for bear spray, an extra lens pouch, or binoculars. I really wish that MindShift had sewn a standardized PALS webbing ladder instead so that things wouldn’t slide around so much.
Overall, it is a functional backpack with one absolutely outstanding feature – the ability to get to your camera when you need it and get it the heck out of the way when you don’t. It’s the best of both worlds between a chestie and a back panel loading pack, and it is a breeze to switch between having the waist pack in the front position and stored out of the way in the back. I find that I take more pictures now along the trail, because getting the camera out and then putting it away again is so much easier. As a bonus, since the waist pack is detachable, you can leave the main pack behind for short hikes or urban exploration.
- The Rotation180° system works extremely well, and is a game changer!
- Will fit (barely) a Nikon D850 mounted on lenses up to a 300 f4 or 24-70.
- Enough capacity for clothing and essentials for 3 season day hiking.
- Doubles as a stand-alone fanny pack.
- The camera storage compartment is just a little bit too snug for a Nikon D850 with a 24-70 mounted. Since this is a common combination, it would be great if MindShift would expand the dimensions just a smidgen. There is a larger size available, but it is a much heavier pack and overkill for this size kit. The Horizon 34L really only needs about 1″ more material to make all the difference.
- The attachment point on the waist belt allows accessory pouches to slide around too much – I would much prefer a PALS webbing ladder.
- The tripod attachment points are too floppy.
- The hydration pocket on the side is superfluous, and the opening for the hose is not centered, so the hose can only be routed to the left shoulder strap. Furthermore, there are not enough loops on the shoulder strap to keep the hose from flopping around.
The Rotation180° waist pack system is outstanding and elevates this pack from middle-of-the-road status to complete game changer. I wish for a little more refinement other aspects of the pack, but perhaps these will be improved in future designs. In the meantime, the Horizon 34L is my top recommendation for the hiking nature photographer shooting lenses up to the 300 f4 PF. In my part of the world, there seems to be a considerable market for this type of pack, so I hope to see MindShift continue to thrive and innovate.
MindShift Rotation180° Horizon 34L Manufacturer Page
What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum? In the United States, the two words are used interchangeably to refer to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), even though, technically speaking, a possum is an Australian marsupial of no close relation. Whatever you prefer, this is is a fascinating creature that often carries an undeserved bad reputation.
I grew up in rural Michigan where we called them ‘possums, and if you said “opossum”, people would look at you weird. Often, you’d see them crossing the road at night, and during the day you could see even more as road kill.
Photographing an opossum in Colorado turned out to be more of a challenge than you might expect. The species is mostly found in the far eastern parts of the state along the Platte, Arikaree, and Republican Rivers in agricultural and riparian areas. There may also be a small introduced population in Grand Junction. Here in Boulder County, there is just one record – a suspected captive escapee that was found in Green Mountain Cemetery in 1919.
My first attempt to photograph opossums was a total disaster. My wife and I drove down to the Republican River near Hale with spotlights and the “frankenflash” (a hacked together combination of spotlight and strobe that I tried to use to photograph nocturnal animals before I wised up and started using camera traps). Not only did we fail to see a single opossum, but we both wound up with miserable cases of poison ivy from stumbling around in the dark.
I knew there were opossums around Julesburg, because I had seen them dead on the road just over the Nebraska border, but finding places to camera trap in the area was a roadblock. Finally, I stumbled upon nature photographer Mack Hitch of Sterling, who helped me with access to a site that was a bit closer to home.
It took me about five site visits to get the shot below. That’s roughly 1,300 miles of driving, and roughly 40 hours of effort spread out across two months. Not too bad compared to my search for hog-nosed skunks, but probably a laughable amount to folks who live in places where opossums are plentiful.
Not only are they so ugly it makes them kind of cute, there are some reasons to appreciate the opossum. First, opossums are the only native marsupial to the USA, which is kind of cool. Like their more glamorous relatives down under, they do have a pouch and their babies are called joeys. The joeys will hang out in their mother’s pouch for about 10 weeks before they grow large enough to climb onto their mothers back to hitch a ride.
Second, they eat ticks by the thousands. There aren’t many things in nature that I can’t find some way to appreciate, but ticks are an exception. Opossums are also resistant to pit viper venom which gives them the mutant power to fearlessly take on rattlesnakes.
Finally, just like a world cup soccer player, they have the not-so-super power of “playing possum” (aka dead) in the face of danger. This might work to deter a predator who would rather have a fresh meal, but is a quick way to become roadkill in our modern world. Combined with their average life span of under two years, opossums have a pretty rough gig.
This species is a milestone in my Colorado mammals project. It is actually the last species for me to photograph that is currently known to inhabit the State of Colorado, and not part of the mythical “X-Files” group (extirpated from Colorado, or potentially expanding their range into the state from elsewhere). Everything from here on out is a mystery waiting to be solved. In case you were wondering, those X-File species include grizzly bear, gray wolf, nine-banded armadillo, eastern spotted skunk, and of course, the wolverine!
Tofino, on Vancouver Island, is one of those places that the minute I heard about it, I knew I had to go. Vancouver Island is just a quick hop from the mainland, and has one of the most amazing landscapes imaginable. Mountains and coastline, what more could you ask for? How about great coffee? Abundant wildlife? Surfing? Yes, that and more. Let’s make this our little secret, eh?
Our journey began in Seattle where we boarded the Victoria Clipper and motored though the heart of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spent most of the voyage above deck keeping a sharp eye out for wildlife, and in Lana’s case, fending off sea sickness. It didn’t take long before the first of many harbor porpoises made an appearance.
The smoke from wildfires burning in British Columbia began to thicken the air as we worked out way to open water. Just about 30 minutes before reaching Victoria, we spotted some large black dorsal fins off the stern. Orca! We didn’t get a good look, nor any good photos, so we left rubbing our eyes wondering if it had been a trick of smoke and waves. I still haven’t had a good look at an orca, so I’m not ready to tick this species off the list yet.
After making land and picking up our rental car in Victoria, we met a friend for lunch before beginning the trip to Tofino. Lana was pretty much out from taking a dose of Dramamine on the boat, so we only made a couple of stops on the four hour drive. Little Qualicum Falls was a nice place to stretch the legs, but the real show was sunset over Kennedy Lake, just before reaching Tofino. The haze from the forest fires combined with the reflections on the lake created one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen.
We enjoyed three days of beach combing, hiking, and exploring around Tofino. Sea lions were far from shore, but unmistakable on the eponymous named Sea Lion Rock off Combers Beach. One of the highlights of the trip was a bear watching tour from a Zodiac boat with Remote Passages Marine Excursions. I was really impressed by our guides knowledge, and in particular his respect for the wildlife. We saw six black bears in the course of the afternoon, as well as harbor seals, more harbor porpoise, and some great bald eagle photo opportunities. It was incredible watching the bears foraging at low tide, rolling over massive rocks with no effort whatsoever. Just as we were coming back to port, we had a really special treat: six river otters at close range! Of course, most people were there for the bears, but if you are a mustelid nerd like me, you know I got my money’s worth!
We saw another black bear on the side of the highway later that night, for a total of seven bears in one day. That is a record for me! Bear scat and tracks were everywhere you look, and it wasn’t hard to see why with the twice a day crab buffet at low tide and abundant berries.
On our return voyage to Seattle, Lana spotted the spout of a whale shortly after leaving Victoria. It fluked a few hundred yards off the stern of the boat. I wasn’t able to get any clear photos for an identification, but I’m going with humpback whale based on the dorsal fin. Gray whale and minke whale are also present around Vancouver Island and Puget Sound, and there are numerous options for whale watching tours in the area, even though we weren’t able to fit one in this trip.
One creature that we didn’t get to see was the gray wolf, but Tofino is still as good as place as any to look for them. Maybe a little too good, based on the increasing number of human-wolf conflicts at places like Long Beach and the abundance of warnings at trail heads. I think with a couple of weeks to work with, we would have gotten a shot. Maybe next spring during gray whale season!
Madera Canyon, Arizona, is one of my favorite places to unwind, explore, and photograph nature. Just a few miles from the mouth of the canyon, Bill Forbes has a backyard pond that provides a unique opportunity to photograph bats in flight using a camera trap system called the Phototrap, which Bill builds and sells. With my sights set on capturing photos of Colorado’s rare flying squirrels, I thought trying my hand at bats would be a great way to learn the ropes of photographing flying mammals in the dark.
Bill’s backyard is well known by birders as a go to spot for photographing Sonoran species like Gambel’s quail and roadrunners from the convenience of his many blinds. Indeed, upon arrival I immediately spotted a lifer bird, a striking male pyrrhuloxia, but the mammal geek in me was even more exited by the enormous antelope jackrabbits grazing on the mesquite bushes.
We set up and I got acquainted with the equipment. The bats would leave their roosts at dusk and predictably visit the pond for a drink, skimming the surface of the water with mouth open. With an infrared beam break sensor connected to the Phototrap controller, the bats would break the beam when they hit the sweet spot. In a normal camera trapping scenario, you would typically connect the sensor to the camera which would then open the shutter and fire the flashes. For bats in flight, though, this configuration is too slow. In the split second it takes for the mechanical shutter on the camera to open, the bat has already moved out of the frame. The way around this is to keep the shutter on the camera continuously open, and connect the Phototrap controller directly to the flashes. In darkness, the flash creates the exposure in one burst of light equivalent of a shutter speed of 1/4000th, or even faster.
I set up two cameras – one with a 600mm lens at the far end of the pond, and another with a 300mm positioned a bit closer. Before it became too dark to see, I prefocused both cameras on the point where the bats would break the beam and then set the shutter for continuous 15″ exposures. The easiest way to accomplish this is with a remote cable that can be locked into bulb mode, but the downside is that Nikon cameras are hard coded to shut off after 100 continuous shots. I think the intention is to keep the camera from filling your memory card with photos of the inside of your camera bag, but unfortunately there is no way around it for situations where you want to take more. If you can’t restart the camera every 25 minutes, using an intervalometer works almost as well.
Once everything was set, all we had to do was wait for the bats for arrive. Bill has a closed circuit television watching the pond with infrared lighting, so we could watch the action without disturbing the set. Like clockwork, the bats arrived and began swooping across the surface of the pond. Sometimes they would come in at the wrong angle, or swoop back up before breaking the beam, but it wasn’t long before a burst of flash signaled that the beam had been broken.
Although it was unseasonably cool and windy during my visit, there was still plenty of action and I brought back some exciting photos. I also lots of great ideas and practice that I hope will help me towards my goal of photographing flying squirrels in Colorado.
When you think of wildlife in Colorado you might think of a bull elk bugling amidst the aspen, bighorn sheep tip toing up a canyon wall, or maybe pronghorn grazing on the prairie. Regardless, I’m willing to bet that one critter you haven’t considered is the turtle!
There are five species of turtles native to Colorado. Four of them are aquatic; the western painted turtle, snapping turtle, yellow mud turtle, and the spiny softshell turtle. The sole terrestrial turtle is the ornate box turtle.
Western Painted Turtle
The western painted turtle is the most common of the Colorado turtles and happens to be the Colorado State Reptile. They are easy to identify and can frequently be seen on logs or rocks in wetland areas.
The snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can be up to 20″ in shell diameter and is equipped with a pair of sharp and very strong jaws. It has a rough, jagged shell and a long tail that looks a bit like an alligator tail. They can be seen swimming in ponds or lakes and also crossing roads in the springtime when they may travel several hundred yards from water to nest. It should be pretty obvious that this turtle is capable of inflicting a nasty bite so don’t try to pick one up unless you know what you are doing. Watch for the tail cutting through the water as the snapping turtle swims just beneath the surface.
Yellow Mud Turtle
Ornate Box Turtle
The ornate box turtle is Colorado’s sole terrestrial turtle species and can be found across the Great Plains, including in the short grass prairie of eastern Colorado. Loss of habitat and collection for the pet trade have threatened the ornate box turtle in recent years.
Spiny Softshell Turtle
The spiny softshell turtle is one of Colorado’s largest turtle species. They are found mostly in waterways along the eastern margin of Colorado.
If you are interested in learning more about these species, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife Natural Diversity Information Source page about turtles.
This article was first published at www.jamesbeissel.com on May 12, 2012. I’ve reposted it here in celebration of World Turtle Day 2016.