Dawn Wilson Photography | Photo of the Month

Image of the Month

Welcome to the portion of my website featuring one of my favorite images from the previous month. The image will most likely feature wildlife, but on occasion I will sneak in a landscape or macro photo. Each image will include some information about where the photo was taken, what caught my eye about the photo, the story behind the photo and any special techniques I used to edit the photo.

Check back in the second half of each month to see the latest posting, and feel free to comment on what you like or don't like about the images.

Happy shooting!

November 2017

Bighorn_sheep_Georgetown_2017_3Bighorn_sheep_Georgetown_2017_3Two bighorn sheep rams (Ovis canadensis) battle for dominance causing one to face plant in the dirt under the other ram near Georgetown, Colorado I normally try to mix up the species of animals for image of the month each month but I have to say that the bighorn rut is just too good of a season and produces too many good photos to stick to that rule this month. 

On Thanksgiving morning I found a group of ewes with two younger rams following them. They weren't the largest rams I had ever seen but they were reputable sizes. I gave it a go and stuck around to watch them. I captured some shots of lip curls and low-neck stretches, and then he showed up — the brute of the bunch who came in to show who was boss. 

This new ram started causing trouble by leg kicking the other rams and instigating head ramming. These are normal behaviors during the rut for rams to show who is dominant and which ram gets the opportunity to mate with the ewes. 

But this other ram had a trick up his sleeve; he moved as the instigator came in for the head butt causing him to do a face plant into the dirt. This went on for more than an hour. I had to leave for a Thanksgiving dinner but I was thankful for the time and photos I did capture of the sheep that morning. 

October 2017

Bighorn_sheep_Waterton_2017_5Bighorn_sheep_Waterton_2017_5A bighorn sheep ram (Ovis canadensis) riases his upper lip, called a flehmen response, to get a stronger wiff of the nearby ewes set against fall colors in Waterton Canyon near Littleton, Colorado. Fall is mating season for a lot of animals in the Rocky Mountains. It starts in August with the bison rut, continues in September with the pronghorn rut, then the elk and moose go into rut next, which continues through early October.

The elk and moose have completed their mating cycle and have started moving into their winter ranges. The next animals to enter their mating season in Colorado will be the bighorn sheep and deer. 

These animals are demonstrating the early signs of the rut season by determining their territories with a little sparring and following the girls - ewes for the sheep and does for the deer. 

I love photographing the bighorn rut. I go out every year in November and December to photograph the rams clashing horns and chasing the ewes.

One shot I had not yet captured was a ram set against fall color demonstrating some rut behavior. It can be a little harder to capture this combination because weather may cause the fall leaves to drop before the rams begin the early rut behaviors. 

Although I am still envisioning a shot with a bigger ram, I was happy to capture this scene of a younger bighorn ram demonstrating the flehmen response set against a soft background of fall color. The flehmen response, or lip curl, is a tactic the rams use to determine if a ewe is going into estrus. The ram will sniff a ewe's urine or hind end, then lift his head, curl up his upper lip and hold that pose for a moment. The behavior helps to move pheromones into an organ above the roof of the mouth and tells the ram the reproductive status of the ewe.

Bighorn sheep are diurnal animals, meaning they are mostly active during the day. This typically is not a good time of day for photography because the light—especially the bright, sunny light of Colorado—is harsh and contrasty. It was no different when I started the hike at noon to find the sheep. But the forecast was calling for clouds and the Broncos game was starting in a couple of hours so I was hopeful that would keep other hikers to a minimum. It all worked because by the time I found the sheep about 90 minutes later the light had softened under thin clouds and crowds had dwindled. 

This photo was taken in Waterton Canyon near Littleton, Colorado. 

Settings: Nikon D4s, Nikon 80-400mm lens at 400mm, 1/500 sec, f7.1, ISO 1000, handheld

August 2017

Moose_Denali_2017_1Moose_Denali_2017_1A bull moose (Alces alces) walks towards a ridge and a foggy valley below the snow-capped Alaska Range in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska One of the best places to photograph wildlife in fall colors is Denali National Park and Preserve. 

Fall doesn't last long up there. The color on the tundra starts the last week of August and continues to the cottonwoods in the lower elevations about the second week of September. Then the snow often starts to fall and that is the end of autumn in Denali. 

But during those three weeks, the colors are spectacular in shades of red, orange and yellow across the open landscape. 

I had the opportunity to visit Denali this August. At first it looked like the fall colors were going to be a dud but then one afternoon it started. The yellows got brighter and the reds got more prominent. 

I saw caribou in the red willows, willow ptarmigan set against yellow leaves, and grizzlies feeding on red berries from bushes with yellow leaves. But one of my favorite photos was this one of a bull moose walking across the tundra towards a foggy valley below the snow-capped peaks of the Alaska Range. 

It turned out to be the only bull moose I would see during my week in the park. That was unusual but I was happy for the opportunity to watch this massive moose, even if only for a moment that foggy morning. 

This photo was taken in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Settings: Nikon D800, Nikon 80-400mm lens at 220mm, 1/100 sec, f16, ISO 500, handheld

June 2017

Black Bear, Rocky Mountain National Park

Black_bear_RMNP_2017_4Black_bear_RMNP_2017_4A black bear sow (Ursus americanus) stands up to get a better look in a forested area of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Being in Estes Park, Colo. for the summer has been amazing. The opportunity to see the wildlife on a daily basis has been more enjoyable than I could have ever imagined. The biggest thrill has been to just watch the daily progression and unexpected things that happen with wildlife in a mountain town. Last week I saw two young bull moose at the local park in Estes Park. They wanted to take a dip in the lake and didn't seem to mind the kids playing on the nearby playground but when the moose tried to cross the road, drivers honked and spooked the moose back into the mountains. Probably better for them. 

I have had the opportunity to find, watch and photograph at least a dozen different nests with almost as many different types of birds: pygmy nuthatch, mountain bluebirds, hummingbirds, flycatchers, flickers, swallows, house wren. 

I got a call midday one day last week about two other moose—two larger bull moose—swimming in Lily Lake. Being so close I was able to quickly drive over and capture the moment. 

But I think the most special opportunity was the black bear sow with two cubs. 

July 2017 marks 20 years since my first visit to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. Five years later I moved to Colorado. Over those 20 years I figure I have visited Rocky Mountain National Park close to a thousand times yet I had never seen a black bear in the park. My timing just always seemed to be of Black_bear_and_elk_RMNP_2017_3Black_bear_and_elk_RMNP_2017_3A cow elk (Cervus elaphus) walks behind a black bear in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado f. 

But one afternoon in early June, I got a call. "Black bear with two cubs are in the park." I was eating lunch but quickly changed my focus when I heard that great news.

I spent about an hour with her and her cubs. She slept at the bottom of a tree where her cubs were napping up above. I never did get a good photo of the cubs as I didn't want to disturb them. 

While watching the sow, a cow elk came by. Based on her behavior, I suspected she had a calf nearby although I never saw the calf. She kept circling the bear and showing a lot of territorial behavior.

I heard the cow eventually ran the bear off from the area. 

So here is to another 20 years of photographing wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park.

These photos were taken in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Settings: (top photo) Nikon D4s, Nikon 500mm lens, 1/1600 sec, f8.0, ISO 1250; (bottom photo) Nikon D4s, 500mm lens, 1/800 sec, f6.3, ISO 1000

April 2017

Bald Eagle in Estes Park, Colorado

Bald_eagle_Lake_Estes_2017_1Bald_eagle_Lake_Estes_2017_1A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flys in front of Longs Peak at sunset in Estes Park, Colorado Most days when I am out photographing wildlife, the experiences are fun but not always the most exciting or full of interesting stories. I will sit and watch animals waiting for a unique behavior or an intimate moment between siblings, parents and offspring or mates. Some days I just find it to be comforting and relaxing to enjoy the outdoors and not worry about the photo.

But one afternoon at the end of April when I was photographing the migrating birds coming through Estes Park I had an experience I will never forget.

I was photographing the shore birds that were using Lake Estes as a resting point before their difficult flight over the Continental Divide. Birds included an American avocet, two willets, and a semipalmated plover. All of a sudden, without me making a single movement, the birds flushed. At that same moment I heard a swoosh of feathers.

For those not familiar, it sounds like folds of taffeta fabric moving in the wind.

I looked up and all I saw were talons.

There are two bald eagles that call Lake Estes home. I believe the one I was now looking directly at above my head was going for the shore birds I was photographing because when the birds flushed, the eagle banked and flew in the direction of the birds.

It was an amazing experience. I unfortunately couldn't get the camera focused on the eagle fast enough because of how close he was but I did capture this one shot as he passed in front of me with Longs Peak in the distance as the setting sun illuminated its 14,259-foot peak.

Photo taken along Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado.

Settings: Nikon D4s, Nikon 500mm lens, 1/2000 sec, f6.3, ISO 800

February 2017

Desert Bighorn Sheep - Colorado National Monument, Colorado

Desert_bighorn_CNM_2017_4Desert_bighorn_CNM_2017_4A desert bighorn lamb (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) stops in front of a cactus, showing the ability to blend into the environment, in Colorado National Monument, Colorado The western slope of Colorado starts to feel the spring temperatures much earlier than most of Colorado. The warm, dry climate means babies are born a little earlier as well for some animals, including the desert bighorn sheep.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the state mammal of Colorado and live in the high, rocky slopes and canyons of the mountains. The desert bighorns, however, are a subspecies of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and prefer the more arid, rocky, desert mountains and canyons of the southwest, such as those found in southwestern Colorado. 

They have a few other differences as well. Desert bighorn sheep typically are a little smaller than their cousins, have the ability to survive long periods of time - from several weeks to a month - without water, and can adapt to the wide-ranging temperatures of the desert. Both varieties of sheep, however, blend in amazingly well with their habitat, as seen by this photo of the lamb in the desert landscape. 

Desert bighorn sheep give birth to their lambs in late winter while the sheep of the mountains wait until the threat of spring snowstorms passes in late May in June. It was these little babies that I was searching for on a trip to Colorado National Monument.

I only found one lamb but it was a cute little newborn - probably about two weeks old - and he was quite happy to show off for the camera. 

Ideal photographs should have clean backgrounds, but I liked the busier background behind this lamb because it shows the dry, desert landscape where this little one was born. It isn't easy living but this animal has adapted well to its rocky, canyon environment. 

For more information about desert bighorn sheep, visit https://www.nps.gov/colm/learn/nature/desert-bighorn.htm

Photo taken in Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Settings: Nikon D4s, Nikon 500mm, 1/125 sec, f8.0, ISO 3200

October 2015

Island Fox - Channel Islands National Park, California

Island_fox_Channel_Islands_2015_4Island_fox_Channel_Islands_2015_4An island fox (Urocyon littoralis) starts to come out from her hiding place in a bush in the campground on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park, California Living on the road and photographing wildlife in new places and old stomping grounds has been an amazing experience. I have many new favorite photos from my travels in October but this one in particular stands out to me. 

I spent the last two weeks of October traveling around California. I had many places I planned to see but primarily I wanted to photograph unique wildlife that live only in specific areas.

One of the goals I have for this adventure is to photograph all of the different species of fox in North America. I love to photograph fox and there are quite a few unique variations.

In Channel Islands National Park just west of Ventura, Ca. there is a small fox called the island fox. It can only be found on the islands because of the separation from the mainland. As a result of this isolation, they have a limited food supply and get very little protein, which makes them a much smaller fox - about the size of a house cat. 

It took me about three hours to find my first one but once I knew what I was looking for I had a little better luck in spotting the sly little critters. This one in particular was comfortable around people and posed for many fun shots. 

For more information about the island fox in Channel Islands National Park, visit https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/nature/island-fox.htm


September 2015

Pronghorn in Rut

Pronghorn_buck_FGNRA_2015_1Pronghorn_buck_FGNRA_2015_1A pronghorn antelope buck (Antilocapra americana) looks directly at the camera as he sports some sage stuck in his horns in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area near Green River, Wyoming. Last month I started an exciting new adventure - I sold my house, bought an RV and started a new lifestyle of living on the road and photographing wildlife. My first six weeks were purely for building up a knowledge about the RV; I had never driven or owned one before. So I thought what better way than to visit a few areas I was already familiar. One of those places was Flaming Gorgeo National Recreation Area. 

This high desert / sage brush steppe ecosystem is abundant with wildlife, including pronghorn antelope. What I had not planned was to be there during the rut for the pronghorn so I unexpectedly got some fun shots. 

This photo is of a buck after he rubbed his head through some sage and tumbleweeds. They will do this to mark their territory, and I think it just might make the bucks a little more attractive for the does to sport some new headwear. 






April 2015

Canada Goose Gosling - Denver, Colorado

Gosling_Sloans_2015_2Gosling_Sloans_2015_2A Canada goose gosling (Branta canadensis) picks up a worm and starts to run off with it at Sloan's Lake in Denver, Colorado Spring is definitely baby season for wildlife. Starting in February, great horned owls start giving birth, and the newborns keep coming straight through early summer.

The last week of April marks the beginning of gosling season in the Denver area. I eagerly anticipate the calendar turning to April 24 - the earliest I have ever seen a newborn gosling. That is the day I start to look for and photograph these cute little babies. Goslings only stay yellow and fuzzy for one or two weeks. After that, they start getting brown and lanky looking before their growth spurt into adults.

This April and May we have had an unbelievable amount of moisture in the Denver area. It isn't unusual to see rain and even snow this time of year but it has been bordering on the description of non-stop. That has caused a lot of days to be very gray and gloomy but the worms have been enjoying it. And when the worms are out the goslings find little treats.

This little baby, probably only a day old, discovered I suspect his first worm while I was photographing him. He was the last to in a clutch of five to walk by me and seemed to be more fascinated with seeing the world rather than keeping up with the rest of his family.

As he walked across the grass, he stopped abruptly and came up with a worm in his beak. The worm was easily as long as he was tall so he kept tripping on the worm as he tried to drag it back to his mom. He dropped the worm, looked at it and quickly scampered back to his family. The worm could be heard sighing at the realization he would live another day.

March 2015

American White Pelican - Denver, Colorado

American_white_pelican_Sloans_2015_9American_white_pelican_Sloans_2015_9An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) close up of the yellow eye shielded by his wing feathers at Sloan's Lake in Denver, Colorado. This month I have selected a photo of an American white pelican. Early each spring, these large birds arrive back in Colorado where they will nest, raise their young and soar high in the thermals well into fall. There are at least three large nesting sites in Colorado.

The first time I saw a pelican shortly after I moved to Colorado in 2002 from New Jersey I thought it was a swan. I never saw pelicans in New Jersey, and my familiarity with the bird was the brown pelican. But that large bird floating in a small lake in Fort Collins was clearly white but didn't have the distinctive long neck of a swan. I was stumped. After a little research I learned about the American white pelican. The page is still marked in my bird guide book from that sighting as it was the start of learning about the new birds I would see in the West.

Brown pelicans are found along the coastal waters of North America and prefer the warm climates of the salt water coastline. The white pelican, on the other hand, is a freshwater bird that lives much of the year in the interior portion of North America with a few in Florida, Texas and California in the winter.

From a photography perspective they are wonderful subjects. You can find some of these large birds, which can be up to 70" wide from wing tip to wing tip, that are comfortable around people. In these cases, sit and watch them. They preen, the stretch their long necks and long bills, and stretch the pouch inside out on their necks. They will soar in the air in large groups where their distinct white wings are tipped in black like they just finished using their wings as paint brushes.

But my favorite part of photographing these birds is capturing the wonderful colors on their heads. Their eyes are ice blue. Their bills are bright shades of orange and pink. And their white feathers have subtle shades of pale yellow on their heads.

This particular photo really focuses on the white feathers and the complementary colors of yellow around the blue eye.

As with many animals, the population of white pelicans has been on the decline. This is mostly caused by loss of habitat, draining of wetlands and human disturbance. I have even seen on multiple occasions seen pelicans tangled in fishing line. So please enjoy the birds from a distance, encourage the conservation of wetlands and through away your used fishing line.

Feel free to ask me questions about how to photograph animals with white feathers. It can be a challenge to avoid blowing out the whites and losing the detail in their beautiful layers of feathers.

February 2015
Red Fox - Grand Teton National Park

Red_fox_GTNP_1Red_fox_GTNP_1A red fox (Vulpes vulpes) stands on a ridge of snow on a sunny afternoon in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson, Wyoming As promised, here is my favorite photo from the photos taken in the previous month of mid-January to mid-February.

I love to photograph red fox but it has become a very difficult task near my home in Colorado. We used to have quite a few roaming around, especially up in Fort Collins, but mange, development and the increase in the coyote population seems to have taken its toll on these red beauties.

So when I was reminded about a fox in Grand Teton National Park I knew it was time to take a trek up there, even if for a few days.

I wasn't disappointed. She was quite inquisitive, cooperative and fun to watch. I'll have more postings of this little red gal, such as her curling up to sleep right in front of me, but of my edits so far, this is definitely my favorite.

I have been working on improving my skills at changing settings on the fly in changing light conditions. Just a few minutes before this photo she had walked through some shade in a wooded area so I had to quickly adjust the settings as she entered into the soft and warm afternoon light.

I am also working on keeping that ISO down as much as possible to avoid any unnecessary noise. Although the D4s is fantastic at higher ISO settings (I have used it as high as 20,000+ range), there is no point in adding noise if you can get the effect you want at a lower ISO setting.
Settings: 1/800 sec; f/6.3; ISO 400
Camera info: Nikon D4s, Nikon 200-400 mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, taken at 490mm

Feel free to ask questions about photographing wildlife in the snow - it is my favorite topic. And take a look at my other photos, purchase a print or check out the workshop schedule on this website.

January 2015
Coyote - Cherry Creek State Park

Coyote_CCSP_15-1Coyote_CCSP_15-1A coyote (Canis latrans) peeks over a wooden fence directly at the camera at Cherry Creek State Park near Aurora, Colorado I find Cherry Creek State Park to be one of the best places to photograph coyotes in the Denver area. The coyotes are used to being around people, and the landscape compliments the brown tones of the coyote fur.

I found this coyote hunting voles along one of the paths on the south end of the park. As he came down the path, he stopped and started listening to something at the base of a fence post. Although it looks like he is looking at me, he was actually fixed on the spot where he would pounce moments later just below the fence. He came up with the vole and trotted off with it hanging from his mouth.

This photo breaks a rule of distracting features - most photographers will not like the blurred out fence at the bottom of the picture. But with my photos, I really work at telling a story. To me this photo shows a coyote hiding a bit. They can be elusive animals and the partially hidden face communicates that sneaky message.

I did try a couple of other crops on the photo. This crop is about a tenth of the original photo so it isn't a terribly large file. I tried a crop showing his legs below the fence but then the message about hiding was lost. I cropped the photo up a little closer to the top of the fence line, just below his eyes, and then it looked odd because it felt like the nose was missing. Even though you can't see the nose, the perception is that there is enough space below the fence line to include a full nose.

I think the two lines - the horizontal fence line and the vertical post line - also help to frame the coyote's face and draw your eye to those staring eyes.

As for editing, I did very little. The photo was cropped, I applied two LR presets (Sharpen - Scenic and Punch - both under Lightroom General Presets). Then I adjusted the contrast a bit, added a little black and saturation, and checked all of the Basic Lens Correction boxes. In Photoshop, I removed any spots, adjusted highlights and shadows, reduced noise with the Neat Image plug-in, did an overall sharpening using the Smart Sharpen option, and then sharpened the eyes a little to make them pop a little more.