Double Dose Trip Report: November Wildlife and Wildscapes
Rolling back the clock a bit, November of 2021 was a busy time for me as I jumped between Arizona and Texas hosting a photo adventure, and scouting for another.
At the beginning of November I was joined by a handful of clients in Mesa, AZ where I guided them in visiting the wild horses that call the Salt River basin their home. Three days of trekking riverside, watching, and waiting really paid off. We had several amazing encounters with bands of various sizes and colors, and at one point were able to view roughly sixty horses in the river at one time!
Because of the timing of this trip the river had just recently been dropped to a very small percentage of its usual summer flow by the local water control authority, something they do this time of year annually. While there are disagreements over the practice because of what it does to the natural river ecology, we work with what we have at the time. The horses do the same and take advantage of the low water levels to access the aquatic grasses that are now much easier to eat. Many times we sat watching and listening as the horses snorkeled for mouthfuls of the nutritious vegetation. The bouts of bubble blowing can bring a smile to even the most serious photographer!
Beyond the snorkeling, the draw of the river eelgrass and its easy accessibility at this time of year means many herds come together when usually they would be a bit more spaced. This "crowding" brings about some high tempers as band stallions show off and get agitated when others encroach on their mares. These tensions lead to skirmishes and shows of strength as stallions put younger bachelors in their place or place boundaries between their family and the next.
As one of the most protected herds of wild horses in the country, these Salt River horses are managed more closely than others. This management includes extensive use of PZP, a fertility-control drug delivered to mares via dart for population control. I mention this as it was interesting to also witness breeding behavior a handful of times during our visit. While PZP has a very good efficacy, not every dart triggers appropriately and thus mares can still exhibit cycles. Only time will tell if we will see a foal or two on the ground next year (gestation for horses is 11-12 months).
Overall it was a great three days in the Arizona desert with a wonderful group of participants.
If you are interested in joining me to photograph these living pieces of western heritage, check out the Wild Heritage Photo Adventure information and upcoming tour dates here.
Less than a week after leaving Arizona, I was floating between ancient cypress trees in the world's largest cypress forest found throughout Caddo Lake. The lake straddles the Texas/Louisiana boarder and is considered Texas' largest naturally occurring lake. With miles and miles of canoe, kayak, and boating trails, Caddo is home to some 200+ species of birds, 47 species of mammals, and 90 species of reptiles. That all sounds great, doesn't it? Sounds like a great place to go when the weather is warm and you want to get a bit of fishing in on a summer afternoon, right? So why was I there in the middle of November when the average highs were in the low 60s and mornings were often close to freezing? Because the challenges are well worth the rewards at this beautiful location.
Caddo Lake is one of the few spots in Texas that gets amazing fall foliage. While forests of other tree varieties (maple, aspen, or chestnut) boast vibrantly colored leaves that twist in the breeze, the cypress forests have a different beauty. When you combine the deep red and orange cypress needles with the unique twisted trunks that seem to glow silver from within and tangles of Spanish miss that drape from various limbs, the look is unique and stunning. Add a bit of morning mist as fog rises from the warm water condensing in the cold air and you have all the elements to create an entire portfolio of moody yet extraordinary images.
Several friends joined me on this scouting trip and the varied images we created, even while sitting in the same boat or canoe, was mind-blowing to me. Everywhere you look there are intimate landscapes and outstanding compositions to be had. Floating in a canoe means moving from one composition to another without hardly picking up a paddle.
Several of the mornings and evenings we hired a guide to take us further into the lake than we would have been able to paddle. The water was so calm, like glass. Because of being in a small john boat, tripods were not used; instead we used high ISOs and handheld our cameras for these images. When we weren't on the boat, we utilized local canoe rentals which again have limitations to tripod use.
Photography tip: Much of the lake and areas popular with canoeing are shallow enough that tall tripods, fully extended, can be put into the water and through the top layers of muck in order to capture images at lower ISO with longer exposure times. While I did not shoot this way on this trip, it is something I plan to explore on return trips. Always be sure you have gear insurance to cover camera flooding or loss if you decide to do this. One mistake or miscalculation can topple a tripod and camera right into the water.
One particularly lackluster day saw overcast skies and rain for much of the morning. When the rain temporarily tapered off that afternoon, we left the dry protection of our cabin to walk along one of the many ponds off the main lake. It was then that we realized there was so much mist over the water we had periods of complete white out where the trees were not visible! Knowing how conditions could change quickly, we geared up and jumped into our canoe. At 2 p.m. we were shooting through the heaviest mist we had encountered the entire trip. As additional bands of rain swept through the area we continued shooting, taking cover under portions of denser cypress canopy during the hardest downpours.
There was something really special to me about those few hours we spent out there on the water, with the rain coming down, mist swirling here and there, and everything quiet except for the occasional murmur from my friend or myself to go this way or that way for our next shot. The outside world seemed to melt away and there was just us, the canoe, and the elements as we worked to create images. No pressure. No obligations. Just being one with the experience and our cameras.
Gear tip: To take advantage of adverse conditions that create beautiful scenes, make sure you understand the build of your equipment and ensure you take appropriate precautions if your gear is not fully weather sealed. The Nikon D500 body, the Tamron 18-400mm, and the Tamron 100-400mm lenses used to create these images are all weather sealed. I use my gear and expect it to stand up to the rigors of the field. These do just that, and I have no problems taking them out in rainy, snowy, windy, or other extreme conditions.
For those interested in seeing even more Caddo images, I have put together an entire Caddo Lake Collection separate from my other image galleries.
Want to create your own images of mist filled cypress trees and moody swamp scenes? Consider joining me for the 2022 Colors of Caddo Photo Adventure or the Caddo Lake Swamp Workshop co-hosted by award-winning photographer and educator Gary Randall.
Overall November was an exciting month filled with a variety of experiences, many of which I hope to enjoy again. It was nice to be able to experience fall colors so late in the year and to visit an environment that reminded me of those I grew up with in Florida.
Until next time, cheers!