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Wildlife

Grasslands National Park: A Photo Essay

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2017 has been the year of the road trip! Not only did we do our big epic Waterton/Montana/Cypress Hills trip, we also did a few other smaller trips, including our inaugural visit to Grasslands National Park. For Canada’s 150th birthday, all the Federal Canadian parks have their exorbitant entrance fees waved. We tried to take advantage of that as much as possible this year. I had been wanting to go to GNP for quite some time. But it’s a really different park experience. There is hardly any development in the park, let alone the region. We might associate things like playgrounds, swimming spots and beaches, ice cream stores and the like as “attractions” that will draw people to an area. Grasslands has none of these typical things. Instead, the park itself is the attraction.

The interesting (untold) history behind the creation of Grasslands is documented in the book “Dams of Contention” by Bill Redekop. The book centres around the creation of the Rafferty & Alameda Dams in South East Saskatchewan. The only reason I read the book is that I knew/know Ed and Harold Tetzlaff personally. I have a signed copy of the book in fact. As I read the book, Grasslands National Park was mentioned. In a convoluted and heavily political deal, GNP basically was created as a consolation prize for Saskatchewan after agreeing to translate Saskatchewan’s laws into French & appease/make a good impression for Quebec to sign the Canadian Constitution. This was all during the Mulroney days & the Meech Lake accord (p.131, 165).  What a mouthful! When I went to Grasslands, I talked with one of the landowners who had sold their land to the government at the time of the creation of the park.  She had no knowledge of this untold back story of the park’s creation.

Regardless of what actually took place in the park’s creation, it is one amazing place. For years it was a ranchers paradise. And by that, I mean it was a darn tough place to make a living. The land is dry and to sustain livestock you need a metric tonne of land. So the ranches in the area go on and on as far as the eye can see. Now the park does too. You feel about 2 inches tall walking around as the landscape is absolutely enormous and unruly. As you drive around and hike, the magnanimous quality of the area becomes abundantly clear.

The park exists in two blocks, West and East. The West has more development but the East is rapidly catching.  The park has a very free quality about. Most National parks are tightly regulated. You can’t go off trails. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. Grasslands is free-for-all. You can go hiking. You can go horseback riding. You can drive. You can go where you like. In fact many of the hikes aren’t on trails of any kind. You can blaze your own trail which is refreshing. It’s a glorious dark sky preserve as well with no light pollution to speak of. We had rain every night we were there though. No stars for us. But the blessings of this wild and untamed landscape are also a bit of a double edged sword. Development and services are very scarce. If you go to Val Marie, I STRONGLY SUGGEST you fill up your gas tank. On our way to the East block we though we could fill up at Wood Mountain. Nope. We were panicking on our way to Rock Glen to get fuel!

One of the hikes we did with the family was the 70 Mile Butte hike. What a glorious walk it was. Of course we were on high alert so that the children didn’t get eaten by rattlesnakes. But the scenery is fantastic and well worth it! It was ridiculously hot but as you climbed the butte trail, the winds picked up and it was excellent! Apparently the aboriginals used the top of 70 Mile Butte for get togethers rather than the valley where there is no wind and insects galore. I stitched a panorama together of the view from the top in Lightroom. The photos still don’t do the view justice.

For accommodations, we stayed in the oTENTiks that the park has. You can bring a tent or camper but we elected to stay in the permanent structure. Glad we did. A heinous storm with gale force wind hit that night. The whole time I had visions of the oTENTik being carried off like Dorothy to the magical land of Oz! With no trees on the horizon to slow down the wind, it comes at you with full force!  The park also has Wigwams that you can rent and camp in as well. All the sites are primitive camping and you need to bring your own water.

Grasslands National Park is a photographer’s paradise. The landscapes are vast and the perfect place for ultra-wide lenses. But even they fail to capture it all. Also, the opportunities for wildlife photography are endless. There are many unique species of animals from Bison to Prairie Dogs to Ferrets to Rattlesnakes and many others. It’s almost like being on a foreign safari shooting photos in GNP. My gear of choice with the family in tow was just my Nikon Df camera and my 24mm f/1.8 AF-S lens and the 70-200 f/4 AF-S lens. That’s it. It was a simple kit but I wanted to be as light as possible and still use full frame. It did the job admirably. I probably could have brought the 16-35 f/4 though for some extra wide angle goodness.

On our last day we decided to head over to the East Block and check it out. As mentioned previously, FUEL UP when you can! Otherwise there is basically nothing along the way. This aspect of non-development is an obstacle that tourism Saskatchewan should really look at addressing in the near future. The East Block has a lot more badlands than does the West. It was more reminiscent to Big Muddy to us. There are many cool hikes we would have liked to pursue but will have to wait until our kids are a bit older. The Valley of 1000 Devils will definitely be a must see!  Grasslands National Park truly is another Saskatchewan diamond in the rough. Get off the beaten trail and goto Grasslands. It’s scenery and landscape are one of a kind. They define the wild spirit of the Land of the Living Skies! 😎

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Ring-neck Release

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It was neat to go out and release some ring-necked pheasants today with the Souris Moose Creek Wildlife Federation. Hunters and conservationists have been releasing pheasants since the 1880s in North America. They have flourished here and have become a favourite quarry for upland bird hunters. I’ve hunted them my whole life and there is not much more excitement to be had than walking around almost stepping on them because they hold cover so tightly! Of course, we enjoyed watching the dogs work the cover more than shooting. But pheasants are more than delicious! In fact, they are my favourite “Chinese food!” We’ve had some fairly destructive winters since 2011 in our area which has no doubt lowered the numbers of pheasants and other upland game birds. Not to mention large numbers of coyotes, hawks, skunks, racoons and other predators that have also brought their numbers down. So it is nice to get out and put some back! Hopefully the 200 birds that were released today will make it through the winter and make more in the spring.


Whitetails at 36MP

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People may complain about the high megapixels of today’s generation of DSLR cameras and I’d agree that yes, sometimes they are are über overkill. But then, some whitetail deer might show up 363 yards and all you might have with you is a 70-200mm lens. And then, you’re happy to have the D800 mega-pretzel madness! The photo above is a 100% crop of this photo: #LOL 😎

20141118-Deerts-001It’s a bummer. I was too late grabbing the camera because this deer and another buck were sparring. I watched with binoculars for a bit then ran for the camera. When I got back, the other deer had already run off. To the victor goes the spoils! Cheers to next years Whitetail babies! 😀

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And So This is Earth Day: A Photo Essay of Reality

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Today is earth day. Nice green trees, fresh water streams, bumble bees going hither and thither. Not here! We’re still caught in the death grip of winter at the end of April for crying out loud! It’s insane. Riddle me this. Why don’t climate action groups ever hold their meetings in Oxbow?! Nope, it’s always Florida or Hawaii or someplace nice! 😉 Come here and get your global warming, it’s buried under 3 feet of snow! 😈  (more…)


Unique Deer

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Deer are deer right? They all look the same to me! I used to think that way until this one doe kept coming into the yard. She had really dark eyes, like she was wearing eyeshadow almost. It made her eyes look enormous, like a fashion model! Other whitetails typically have more of a white rim around their eyes, but this doe is quite unique from the rest. Also, in our yard, it is rare to see any bucks. It is primarily doe and fawn pairs that show up to gobble up my bird seed. But lo and behold, a big bodied buck showed up – missing his head gear.

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20130201Deertz 3I immediately knew that this was a different deer that hadn’t been in the yard before. I wanted to get a head shot of his antler sockets too. I finally was able to nab this (100% crop) image and get a better look. Pretty nifty!

20130201Deertz 4You can also notice what a different color the buck is from the doe and fawn. He’s much more golden brown than the typical grey color that winter whitetails usually sport. It truly is amazing how well the doe blends into the tree branches. They melt away just by turning sideways.

20130201Deertz 520130201Deertz 6And finally, a blurry action shot of the male deer “doe-slappin'” the female. She was too close to his food store, aka my bird feeder. It was quite the exchange. For everyone who thinks that Bambi is the way life is in the deer kingdom, think again! In the winter, food competition is tough and the biggest deer gets the spoils. And, they have no problem beating the crap out of the competition. I’ve seen does up on their back legs kicking each other like kangaroos! Note the awesome body language here, besides the hoof slap. His ears are WAAAY back. Look out deer pals, trouble’s a brewin’! 😎

 


Yard Pals

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When the weather gets bloody cold, the deer come to town. Even if you don’t see them, you see their tracks in the snow. But lately in the cold snaps we’ve been having, we’re getting deer coming through the yard right in the middle of the day! But predictably, they start to come in right about sunset. I feed the birds and they help themselves to whatever the birds don’t eat. It’s a whitetail bonanza and it’s great for getting the deer to come in close to the camera. I shot all these photos from our little deck that sits up high above the back yard. It works great because deer don’t have any natural predators in trees, meaning, they don’t look up much. 😎 This doe is letting me know she’s putting her foot down! hehehehhe… 😉


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More Insane D800 Stuff

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Deer from the deck

OK, OK. I’ve nearly got this camera nerdery out of my system. But check this out. The deer were coming by the yard to freeload and eat the bird seed. I waited until it was very dark outside with barely any light, save what was spilling through our living room window. I had my 70-300 lens on the camera, 300mm 1/25 f/5.6 (bleh, I know) but I nabbed these deer shots at 25600 ISO or H2.0 in Nikon speak. The files are heinously, cell-phone-esque noisy, but a) the camera nailed the focus in utter darkness and b) when down sampled they are nearly usable! All that resolution really helps make a purse from a pig’s ear. 😎 I didn’t edit the shots except for watermark and the one crop. They are all SOOC RAW conversion.

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Welcome to the buffet, you fat lard!

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50% Crop! 25600 ISO

And, here’s one more I shot earlier at 6400 ISO which is totally usable. 😀 I heart the D800!

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The Crops

At lunch today I went out back and nabbed a few shots of some chickadees and redpolls that were coming to my black sunflower seed bonanza. I wanted to see how much you can crop a D800 RAW file. As a rule, I don’t crop anything. I like to fill the frame and have the shot exact in camera. But for this challenge, I wanted to see how the detail would hold up as we crop in on an image. Chickadees and other small song birds have loads of fine feather detail and I couldn’t wait to see how the D800 would do. Truly it is amazing how much information is there in these files. You can see in these shots, one at full size, one at 50% and the third at 100%.

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50% Crop

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100% Crop

Isn’t that wild? It’s unbelievable! But, all that resolution beats the living tar out of your lenses too. I shot this with a 70-300, Nikon’s el-cheapo telephoto and it shows. The fine details quickly turn to mush-mush. It would be nice to see what a 300 f/2.8 would be like. 😎

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100%


Sunbathin’ Yote

It was cold this morning, mercury was dipped to -22C. Cold enough even for the creepy crawly critters to seek out a warm sunny spot. 😎 I watched this coyote walk up the ridge opposite to our house. He slowly climbed down over a big snow bank and spun around a few times, making a cozy little spot to catch some rays. I was on breakfast detail so after I had finished my chores, I grabbed the camera and snuck out in our backyard to see if I could nab a shot. My trusty 70-300 has always been my goto wildlife lens, though it’s performance is sluggish. I barely made one frame of the coyote  before he saw me and got nervous. The slow AF on the lens didn’t help much either as I wasted precious seconds trying to acquire focus. But I nabbed one while he was resting and a couple more as he began to flee.

The thing about coyotes is, they’re survivors. When World War III happens and nuclear armageddon is unleashed, the last thing walking around will be a coyote. This one looks like it will survive the winter just fine. 🙂 Unless it keeps hanging around my yard. Then it might have a little visit from Dr.223… 😈 I took a couple other shots of those cool winter patterns and textures too.


Early Mornin’ Wildlife!

We got the phone call this morning from our neighbour Eagle-Eye Jimmy that there was a momma & baby Moose on our crescent sauntering around. Nature guide Olivia spotted them from the breakfast table. So I grabbed my camera and went out trying to get the photo of the year with mom & baby in town. However, they had already vacated the premises. But I did find a baby bunny in point blank range and . . . a giant black bear!!!! 😉