First Light over Texas

Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Culberson County, it’s a sure bet that I’ll be making several trips up and down all 55 miles of my favorite highway, Texas State Highway 54. During my most recent visit, I decided to see how it looked in the twilight of dawn. So, I rolled out of Van Horn while it was still dark and drove north, enjoying, as usual, the complete absence of other vehicles.

Texas 54 terminates at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest terrain in the state. It was wonderful to see the mountains aglow as the sun cracked the horizon.

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

rr still

Each time I travel the desert roads of Texas and New Mexico, I manage to catch at least one glimpse of a roadrunner. Usually, they just zip straight across the road directly in front of me, and by the time I reach for a camera, they’re long gone. I’ve never come close to capturing one on film (or the digital equivalent).

That changed on my most recent visit to the Davis Mountains. I had activated my phone’s video camera to record a scenic stretch of road. Almost immediately, a roadrunner joined the party. You’ll see it enter the road from the grass on the right, zigzag up my lane, cross the centerline, then run up the left edge of the pavement. As I pass, it hops into the grass and flies away. Far from a spectacular piece of cinema, but I’m happy that I finally got a lens on one of these beasts.

This short video has been slowed to just 20% of its original speed and there is no audio track. You’ll have an easier time seeing the bird if you play the video in full-screen mode (the icon in the lower-right corner of the video window).

Click HERE to view the video on my Vimeo channel.

Runtime: 55 seconds

 

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I have previously written about my favorite spot in the Davis Mountains of Texas, which I last saw in 2004. Naturally, this view topped my list of things to see when I rolled through the area in October of 2015. So, after a chucking my luggage into the hotel room and grabbing a quick dinner, I drove up into the hills, wondering if the valley was still as beautiful and unspoiled as I remembered.

Absolutely perfect autumn weather for an evening drive in the mountains, just as it was in ’04. The sights along the road all seemed familiar, and very little, if anything, appeared to have changed. I took that as a good omen. Anticipation was reaching the saturation point, and certain landmarks looming ahead told me that I was very close to my destination. Rounding the final curve, I pulled over, cut the motor and smiled broadly. There it was, exactly as I had left it. Welcome back, Carl. Eleven years had changed nothing…

…though it’s a safe bet that the trees had grown a little taller and a little fuller in my absence.

I walked over to the edge of the slope and stood there, basking in the scenery and the silence, which was broken only by a few chirping birds and insects, and three rather clumsy deer stumbling down the steep hillside behind me.

At this point, I placed my cell phone on a small tripod and recorded two minutes of video, which you can view here.

So, was everything the same after eleven years? That verdict would require the onset of total darkness, still a couple of hours away. Seemed like a great excuse to continue driving through the mountains, watching as the final moments of daylight painted the sky and the landscape…

…and then back to the spot in time to watch the young crescent moon as it fell slowly behind the hills to the west…

Now it was time to prepare for the main event. The nearby McDonald Observatory was built here for a very good reason, as the Davis Mountains are home to some of the darkest skies in North America. The folks at the observatory have even assisted local residents and businesses in procuring outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution. And plenty of other people in the area are behind the effort to keep the skies dark.

When I came here back in ’04, I was blown away by the starlight on display, an intensity unequaled elsewhere in my travels. Sadly, I only had a low-resolution pocket digital camera with me on that trip, so astrophotography was off the menu. This time, I brought the gear to make it happen.

Looking at satellite images of this area, I spotted a few buildings within this large valley that appeared to be the homes of ranchers. I don’t know if they existed during my last visit or if they were recently constructed. Regardless, I was hoping that they wouldn’t spoil the view.

Darkness was now firmly in command, and the show in the sky was nothing short of stellar, once again. And happily, the stars were the only source of light visible in any direction; the valley remained dark. If any of the homes down there had outdoor lights burning, they were buried in the rolling hills and invisible from my vantage point.

Adding to the romance of the evening, the coyotes took up their call, just as they did two weeks earlier as I was shooting the Harvest Moon eclipse in South Dakota. For me, that sound is the most wonderful part of photographing the night sky in the West.

I hope this area will maintain its sublime beauty for a long time to come. And I hope it won’t be eleven more years before I return.

Sundown

In addition to our usual pre-dawn arrival each day at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch this past October, we picked one afternoon to return for our first look at the ranch glowing under the light of the low western sun. The mood was quite different, and there was much excitement as we ran around and clicked away at all of the wonderful new presentations of light and shadow. We stayed until the sun fell behind the distant mountains.

Ilford SFX 200 film

Buffalo Peaks Ranch
South Park, Colorado

Letting the Outside In

Another vintage film that I brought along on our most recent visit to the ranch was a roll of Kodak 2475 Recording Film, an extremely grainy high-speed film that was once a favorite of private detectives and cops working surveillance. This relic had been in the family film closet since my earliest days of photography; the expiration date was JAN 1977. By all rights, this roll should have become completely fogged over and useless many years ago. I was pleasantly surprised when the 36 frames came out quite nicely.

Buffalo Peaks Ranch
South Park, Colorado

The Sleepy Owl

One sunny morning, many years ago, I was rolling westward along US 12 in Broadwater County, Montana on the section of the highway that passes through the Helena National Forest. Suddenly, in the opposite lane, I saw what appeared to be a large bird sitting in the road. As I slowed beside it, I realized that it was an owl…

I’m a big fan of leaving wild animals alone to do what they do, but when it comes to animals in the road, I can’t help but take action. I always stop (safely) when I see a turtle on the pavement; sometimes I’ll just sit in the car with my flashers on until it has completed its journey, other times I’ll carry the turtle to its destination on the far shoulder.

This owl was in the eastbound lane of the highway at the end of a fairly tight curve, and as the morning sun would have been in the eyes of those driving in that lane, chances were high that it would have been crushed by the next vehicle to come along. So, on went the flashers and I pulled halfway onto the eastbound shoulder to block the owl from approaching traffic, then I got out of the car for a closer look.

Naturally, I’m wondering, What is this owl doing in the middle of the road? It appeared to be sleeping. If so, it could have found a better location!

Perhaps it was sunbathing. Whenever I drive rural roads in the morning, I frequently see birds sitting on the pavement to get warm, since asphalt retains heat quite well. But they always fly away when a vehicle approaches.

Perhaps this owl was sick. If so, I wouldn’t know.

Perhaps it had been stunned in a collision. That was my best theory at the time, although I didn’t notice any blood, any missing feathers or any body parts out of place.

Really, it just appeared to be…sleeping. Content, relaxed and in charge. This is my road, I’m taking a nap, deal with it.

My attempts to rouse this beast by shouting and clapping failed miserably; the only response I got was one slight turn of the head. Though the eyes never opened, at least I knew someone was in there. I then grabbed a branch from a nearby shrub and gently tapped the bird on the back several times. Nothing.

No cooperation forthcoming, I went to the trunk and grabbed my leather work gloves and a towel. Approaching the bird from behind, I gently covered it with the towel, lifted it carefully and carried it through the tall bushes on the south side of the road. There, beside a small stream, I set it down in a patch of sunlit grass…

Fortunately, due either to the remote location, the time of day or the day of the week, no vehicle traffic appeared during this encounter (had there been any, I wouldn’t have held things up by taking pictures).

Using field guides, I was never able to positively ID this owl. Looking at the photos now, many of its feathers remind me of those on juvenile raptors. Working with that assumption, and considering the bird’s size (somewhat larger than an NFL football) and the curved black beak, and after scanning through internet images of juvenile owls, my best guess is that this was a young great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). (This ID was verified by the folks at Montana’s Owl Research Institute. Thank you!)

Had I access to a smartphone at the time, I would have tried to contact a local bird rescue operation. But this was years before I owned a cell phone, and I have to wonder if you could get a signal even now in that remote area.

I hope this owl lived to fly another day.