Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for November, 2008


posted: November 27th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Just to let all know that Bert & Janie are doing well and thinking about our many friends scattered in parts of Alaska, Canada and the U.S.

Also want to let you know that we won’t be going hungry this year, though it won’t be because of these bold creatures. As always “guests” to our yard and sometimes even to our bird feeders, are all pardoned, despite their messy crimes.


These turkeys on our lawn didn't realize that lots of folks could have their eye on them. Though we've pardoned all turkeys, nevertheless we'll be well fed this Thanksgving, and hope you will be too.

And though it might be cold outside, inside our house there’s a warm fire blazing in the hearth and so here, it’s warm and cozy.

We hope all is well with you, too, and that we hear from EVERYONE. In the meantime, we wish you a:



Two Years Ago we celebrated Thanksgiving back east with Rich, Eleanor and Emma Luhr. Just days earlier we had been in Great Smoky Mountain National Park where snow had already fallen. Appropriately, we had just interviewed a well known Native American:

*Great Smoky Mountain National Park

One Year Ago at this time I pardoned our turkeys and Janie and I hiked with my sister and brother-in-law in Glacier National Park.


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Photography–Here’s How One Man Broke into this Challenging Field

posted: November 24th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Tom Ulrich began his photography career about 35 years ago, and in those intervening years he has managed to achieve what few others have accomplished, and that is financial independence in a field that sees all too many casualties. Just how he did so is one of the things he and I talked about several days ago as we hiked the hills of Montana’s Wildhorse Island. (Some of you may recall that Wildhorse is an area I’ve boated to several times now these past few weeks.) The weather was warm–too warm to fire up the hormones that normally trigger so many ritualistic activities among the bucks and rams.


Though we saw lots of bucks and rams, none were aggressively attempting to assert themselves--and this is normally a time when rams can't stand one another. These fellows seemed down-right friendly.

True we saw lots of sheep and lots of deer, but most seemed more interested in filling their stomachs than in determining which rams and which bucks would prove themselves most fit to pass along their superior genetic message. As a result we spent more time reminiscing about our early days in the field of photography then we did actually taking photographs. We also spent time searching for some rather unique and very conspicuous Native American tree displays that date back well over a hundred years.


My interest in photography was fostered by my arrival in Glacier National Park back in the early ‘60s. Like so many, the wildness of this northern Montana park stimulated my interest and I wanted to record its beauty. To accomplish my goal I worked both as a teacher and as a seasonal ranger until I felt the time was appropriate to make the transition to fulltime work as a writer and a photographer.

Tom, on the other hand choose a more difficult route. Though he had also worked as a teacher, he found the classroom too confining, and sought a highly unique method of bridging the financial gap, something that not just anyone could have done.

In the late ‘60s, each fall thousands upon thousands of salmon would migrate from Flathead Lake to the upper reaches of rivers and streams in the Flathead Valley. Their numbers would attract anglers interested in snagging the spawning fish, but in the course of doing so they would lose thousands of relatively expensive triple hooks.


Life has changed for Tom in the last 35 years, a period which began with many diverse types of work. Now he travels the world and is on an annual speaker's circuit, lecturing about photography and the places it takes him.


Here’s where Tom’s previous life as an athlete came into play.


Once Tom had been an Olympic swimming tryout, and he took those skills to the river. Donning scuba diving tanks and appropriate garb, he would swim along river bottoms retrieving lost hooks. He’d then bundle them up and resell them at various outlets he had established. Pricing the lures at eight for a dollar, returns were significant, because of the high volume. Such returns were augmented by picture sales to magazines, though initially, these were sporadic. To keep expenses down (he got no bailouts!), he lived in his van for several years, often winter camping at Glacier Park’s Apgar Campground.


That's me standing next to a huge cut made over a hundred years ago by Native Americans. The cut exposed the sweet inner bark inherent in this ponderosa tree, so providing for them a source of rich succulent food.

Simultaneously Tom continued taking photographs, and was creating a clientele among magazine editors and stock photo agents. He also joined the Outdoor Writer’s Association of American competing in the organization’s various photography contests. Often, he’d win–and still does.

With yet more time Tom began establishing himself throughout the country as a lecturer and began expanding his travel destinations. Rather than confining himself to Glacier he began traveling to such exotic places as the Galapagos, the Pantanal; to Africa, to Alaska….

As well, he bought a 20-acre parcel of land near Glacier and built his own log cabin home.


Though I remember much of this “journey” from my years of association with Tom, our trip several days ago on Wildhorse provided a refresher on his career. Photography has also been good for me, but rather than working as a photographer/lecturer, I’ve worked as a photographer/writer. We’ve both seen much of the world, but often find much of interest in our own backyard, just as we did on this most recent boat trip to Wildhorse.

When we’d arrived early that morning, we’d left my boat in a remote island cove. Just before reaching it on our return we found a spot where Native Americans had cut away the bark on a huge ponderosa tree well over a hundred years ago. By doing so, they had exposed the rich inner bark, which provides a source of sustenance. The technique is one that was once practiced by the Salish, Kootenai and Nez Perce Indian tribes; and as we looked around, we found many such trees, which provided a great cap for the day.

Interesting isn’t it how intended activities that don’t work out can be salvaged by staying flexible? Though we’d hoped to find sheep and deer in the rut, we’d transformed the day into a thoroughly enjoyable outing through companionship and by keeping our eyes open.

FOR MORE on Tom’s Work here’s a link to his website: Tom Ulrich Photography


*Natchez Trace


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Athabascan Fiddle Festival

posted: November 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

Note: Several years ago I covered the Athabascan Fiddle Festival for Native Peoples Magazine. The event is an annual one, held in Fairbanks, and it just recently concluded.

Chalkyitsik Dancers

Chalkyitsik Dancers exhibit a variety of dance types to include the popular jig and the rope dance.

The following is an excerpt from that story with comments to follow about photographic techniques and about some of the Athabascan peoples who attended. Janie and I have meet many of these people in the bush, several at trapping camps and many while they’ve been hunting or fishing. These people are a subsistence group, still depending for food on what they extract from the wilderness that flanks their tiny villages. All photographs and text are copyrighted, as is all material presented in my blog.

©Bert Gildart: Fixed forever in my mind is the image of Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village, a Gwich’in Indian, sitting proud, feet beating up and down in a rhythmic manner, drawing his bow across the strings of his fiddle, creating a sweet, sweet sound that only a handful of skilled musicians can yet produce. Included in that image is the joy of watching hundreds of Athabascan men and women dancing.


Most consider Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village to be one of the best of the Athabascan fiddlers. He is in demand throughout both Alaska and much of the Yukon. (See link below)

Elders had risen from wheelchairs to form part of a group that now included individuals who glided and shuffled–bowed and retreated–for almost an hour, until at last–smiling and laughing–a few began to drop from the number, only to regroup for the remainder of the night’s entertainment, for at midnight the festival had only begun.

For me, these memories remain as exhilarating as helping my friend Kenneth Frank of Arctic Village extract dozens of grayling, cod and lake trout from a fishnet at -33°F. The difference is that fiddle playing is intended to offset–perhaps even celebrate–the rigors of life in the “bush.”


Katherine Peter dances with young admirer. Mrs. Peter is the author of several books about her years at Fort Yukon. (See link below.)

“That’s what it is,” said Doris Ward of Fort Yukon, Alaska. “It’s a joyous musical marathon. We just dance and listen, and we have so much fun seeing old friends we’ve shared trap lines and hunting camps with. And, then, for a few days, we forget some of our troubled times and all our hard work…”


For almost 20 years now, Janie and I have been wandering North American for various magazines using a variety of modes of transportation, to include snowmobile, johnboat and an Airstream travel trailer. Upon return from these trips, which often span months, we organize photographs and then write stories around them. One of the most comprehensive photo studies has included our documentation of the Gwich’in Indians, a tribe that lives further north than any other Indian tribe (Eskimos live further north).


Bertha Underwood and Simon Francis. Francis once shot the "Ice Bear," as it stalked him. Janie and I first meet him following a four month trip on the Yukon and Porcupine rivers. He told us the story. (Follow link, just below.)

Several years ago we covered the Athabascan Fiddle festival, an annual event held in Fairbanks. The event is just as described above, and in many cases, the people I photographed were some of the same individuals I photographed under different circumstances living out in the bush. Trimble Gilbert is one such person, and so were Katherine Peter and Simon Francis.


Immediately after the festival Janie and I flew almost 100 miles above the Arctic Circle to visit our good friend Kenneth Frank, whom we also photographed at the festival. From this tiny village of about 80, I then accompanied Kenneth on a 20-mile snowmobile trip to Old John Lake. Temperatures hovered around -30°F.

What an adventure that was, for us to string his 70-foot long net beneath the ice. First, we had to drill 12 holes in the ice and then “thread” the net beneath the ice pushing it with a stick. Next day we returned and hauled out a catch of several hundreds pounds.

This trip for Native Peoples magazine is much on my mind these days as I hope to take my work from my 18 years of documenting the Gwich’in to a different level. To date my stories and photographs from these lengthy trips into the Arctic have appeared in many publications to include National Wildlife, Christian Science Monitor, and Time Life. As well, the United States Information Agency syndicated a story it commissioned me to write to their many overseas outlets.


Kenneth Frank at Old John Lake hefts white fish, one from a catch of several hundred pounds. Temperature here on this mid November day is –33°F, and in just another week the sun will remain below the horizon not to return until mid January.

All that said, this group of people remains one of favorites, and we wish them well with all their various endeavors.


When possible, I used two Nikon strobes to create shadow relief on these subjects. One strobe tends to create flat light or light that is sometimes blocked up in shadows. Janie held one strobe the other was mounted on my camera. Generally I designated the strobe Janie held as the main light and the one on my camera as the fill light, meaning that I backed off the on-camera strobe by up to one full f-stop, though generally a third to two thirds. I also used a strobe for the photograph of Kenneth extracting fish. I angled the strobe up to prevent the light from washing out the snow in the foreground.


*Lessons from Cades Cove (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)


(Though I used different Nikon camera equipment, here’s what I’d use today.)

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Gray Jay or Clark’s Nutcracker? A Case For Field Guides

posted: November 17th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Since no one picked up on the misidentification I made on my posting of September 22, 2008, (A Life Time in the Mountains) perhaps I shouldn’t say anything. But I don’t like to make mistakes, so am going to point out that I mixed up the identification of what is commonly known as a Whiskey Jack with the Clark’s Nutcracker. The posting was from a trip to Banff National Park in Canada, and I’ve corrected the error. Because it’s easy to confuse the two under some conditions, here’s some information that will help with the correct I.D. It also makes a good case for always consulting field guides.


This is a Clark's Nutcracker, not a Gray Jay as I said in a recent post

The Whiskey Jack, also know as the Gray Jay, has a beak with a more rounded tip while the Clark’s Nutcracker has a sharply pointed bill. The call of the two birds is also much different. The Whiskey Jack creates a sound that with a little imagination can actually sound as though it’s saying Whisssssss keeey. The Clark’s Nutcracker has a more drawn-out sound: Kr-a-a-a, it grates out, Kr-a-a-a.

The Gray Jay’s head also distinguishes it, being dark toward the rear. By contrast, the Clark’s Nutcracker’s head is a solid gray.


What can sometimes be confusing is that both birds occupy the northern coniferous forest. Moreover, the Clark’s Nutcracker is usually difficult to approach, but that wasn’t the case six weeks ago above Lake Louise where I took this photo. The Gray Jay photo was taken in winter, and ironically on a winter trip to Banff. See the snow? Gray Jays are notorious for begging and for stealing items from your camp or picnic area–hence another name: Camp Robbers.


And this is a Whiskey Jack, also known as Grey Jay and Camp Robber, because it will swoop into your camp and steal any food left unattended.

Actually, I do know the difference between the two, but sometimes I get too many irons in the fire and that’s when I start making mistakes. I hope it doesn’t happen often. Interestingly, according to a field guide, the Clark’s Nutcracker was named after William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

I picked up my error while preparing a submission to my Stock Photo Agent in New York, and when Janie and I make submission to him, we both check things many, many times. That’s when I recalled my posting and today, when I reexamined it, I discovered the mistake.

To be absolutely sure I was correct this time I referred to one of our field guides. Over the years we’ve owned several and they are all available from Amazon. When traveling, we always pack them along in our Airstream, which will soon be put to use once again. We think the guides are invaluable.

Now aren’t you glad I made a mistake, ‘cause now look at all the extra information you got.


*We were in the Great Smokies, during a week when the park experienced a snow storm.


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Feeder Watch! What’s in This Bird Monitoring Program For You?

posted: November 13th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: When not on the road (as we often are), throughout the year one of our greatest sources of enjoyment at home is derived from our bird feeder. In fact, our guests at our bird feeder have often been the source of our posts. Janie is the one who gathers most of the tabulations and she has recorded about 30 different avian species.


An infrequent visitor to our bird feeder, this red squirrel grew quite use to me and within an hour I was approaching it close enough for my 80-400mm Nikon zoom lens. (Hunger overcame fear of humans.) To fill in the shadows, I added an SB800 Nikon flash. The photo is uncropped and illustrates the range of visitors we receive year 'round.

Most typically, species include the nuthatches, a variety of woodpeckers, crossbills, juncos, yellow warblers, and grosbeaks. More rarely, and sometimes not always wanted, huge turkeys have gathered on the railing near our feeder and tried to empty it of its contents. Once a bald eagle swooped in, but it was probably more interested in grabbing one of the song birds as a meal rather than feeding on the suet or grain we provide.

And once, too, three raccoons visited our feeder. But they left so much damage in their wake that they’re are not welcome back.


This past week, in addition to the usual species of birds, visitors have included a red squirrel (above) and two pileated woodpeckers. This species is one of our favorites and Janie enjoys them so much she has given them names. Our male has a red moustache, and she calls him “Hector.” Our female is not so endowed and we call her “Hortense.” Though we often see them singly on our feeder, never before have I seen them together. My picture here is not the best, but then it is a photograph of two pileated woodpeckers–and that I thought was unusual enough to post it.

We love our feeder, and this year I’ve learned of a program that could enhance our enjoyment. It would be of immense interest if we were not going to depart soon in our Airstream on another trip to gather story materials and photographs.


The program is called FeederWatch, and I obtained the information in the form of a press release, something those of us who are members of the Outdoor Writers’s Association of America receive lots of. Essentially, FeederWatch asks participants across the country to create periodic tallies of birds that visit their feeder. From this information scientists at the Cornell Ornithological Labratory create a picture of winter bird abundance and distribution. But it can’t be done without the help of those who have bird feeders.


This is one of the few photographs I've posted that I've modified extensively. Because it's rare that we get a single pileated woodpecker, much less two, I grabbed my camera when light was poor, upped the ISO to 1200, then cropped the image almost in half. Only moments before both had been feeding from the suet container, and that would have made a much better photograph.

For more complete information about FeederWatch I’m providing a link, but in short, and to borrow from their press release here’s what they’re all about:

FeederWatch data shows which bird species visit feeders at thousands of locations across the continent every winter. The data also indicate how many individuals of each species are seen. This information can be used to measure changes in the winter ranges and abundances of bird species over time.

With each season, FeederWatch increases in importance as a unique monitoring tool for more than 100 bird species that winter in North America. It has been used in all states and is a tool often used by school teachers to stimulate interest in student for science.


Importantly, FeederWatch data tell us where birds are as well as where they are not. This crucial information enables scientists to piece together the most accurate population maps.

Because FeederWatchers count the number of individuals of each species they see several times throughout the winter, FeederWatch data are extremely powerful for detecting and explaining gradual changes in the wintering ranges of many species. In short, FeederWatch data are important because they provide information about bird population biology that cannot be detected by any other available method.

As I said, if we were going to be here this winter, this is a program in which we’d definitely ourselves. In the meantime, why don’t you try it and then tell me later down the road how you like it.


Great Smoky Mountain National Park

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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What We Can Learn From Chaco Culture National Historic Park That is Relevant Today

posted: November 10th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Several years ago after ascending a short trail through a cliff face in Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Janie and I came to an overlook that allowed us to peer over a vast complex known as Pueblo Bonito. Studying the amazing brick work we could make out what park interpreters said were homes–and circular structures known as kivas.

Chaco4 054

From a cliff face in Chaco, we looked down over Pueblo Bonito and could see the round circular structures knows as Kivas. Though they were used for religious cermonies, some believe their superabundance heralded the demise of a culture.

These particular structures were numerous, and I had to wonder what happened? That question led me to purchase an informative book written by Dr. David E. Stuart entitled Anasazi America. From it I took away some important concepts that are applicable to our society today. The theories illustrate a significant way our national parks benefit today’s society, for they provide lessons from the past, often germane. (Other Native American ruins we’ve explored include Anza Borrego, Zion, Earth Mother, V-Bar-V Heritage Site.)

Dr. Stuart took an entire book to develop his thoughts, but the essence of this imminent archaeologist’s theory is that the “unbelievable explosion of kivas about A.D 1100 points to a ritual life that had stopped nurturing open communities and had grown increasing demanding and obsessive.”


Stuart takes this concept and then says there’s a modern version of this behavior. “…a narrow sector of society,” writes Stuart, “designates itself the chosen one and attempts to regulate the values, morals, even politics of the rest… In the end, this type of behavior blames the victim: one is poor in America because one is morally and ethically defective.” Elitists, he says, are created and that, Stuart says, is what contributed in large measure to the decline of the ancients.


Masonary skill of the ancients were impressive and five different types are represented in the doors leading through these halls of Pueblo Bonito. Large format photography works particularly well here, particularly with a wide angle lens.

Regardless of whether you concur with Stuart, one of the greatest cultures in America perished. Some say drought played a role, and Dr. Stuart acknowledges that that in part may have contributed to the collapse. But Stuart believes it was more. He says that the elite had become obsessed with material goods and that it had eliminated the middle class upon whom all goods were dependent. They did so by providing less and less in return for their efforts, in part so they could build more kivas and have more leisure time in them. That meant their “middle class” got poorer as did their lower class. Meanwhile the rich got richer, though not for long. Eventually the Chacoan culture collapsed, and in ways artifacts show were often barbaric.

The collapse was significant and it was inclusive, resulting in the demise of a culture that can be counted as some of the world’s most skilled masons; and if you take time to explore the many national park managed areas in the Four Corners, I am confident you too most will become intrigued with this former way of life and all it offered–for awhile. Of course, this is just the theory of one man, though a man who has written many books on these ancients and their life ways.


If you do intend to visit artifacts left by these ancient puebloan peoples of the Four Corners, you’ll want to visit such areas as Chaco, Aztec, Canyon del Chelly, Mesa Verde, Navajo National Monument, and Hovenweep–all located within a relatively short driving distance of one another. This is one of those places in America where you can devote months and never feel you’ve seen it all. For RV enthusiasts, that means gas expenditures are lessened. In fact, if you go now your saving might be even greater, for we all know they’re now “giving away” gas at the pumps. Next month it may soar.


I’ve visited these areas dozens of times for magazines such as Native Peoples Magazine. Thoughts expressed above are much on my mind, as I’m now working on another story for another publication.


Kin Kletso, one of the many photos I made using a large format camera.

Stock photos (4×5) in my files have been used by calendar companies. In fact, because rocks don’t move, this is a perfect place for the 4×5 format and I’ve used–and still use–a Toyo Field 45AII with three Nikor lenses to include a 75mm wide angle, 180 normal and a 360 medium telephoto. Obviously I work off a tripod.

As well, I use a Nikon D300 with an assortment of lenses similar to the ones above. For interior shots you must have a wide angle, but for landscape photos such as shown in picture number one, you will need a short telephoto. Typically, particularly with interior shots and when working with a large format camera, I use long exposures (one full second and sometimes even longer) and extremely small apertures, such as f-45 or even f-64 (remember Ansel Adams’s F-64 club?). The same applies to 35mm photography, though extreme settings are not required to optimize depth of field.


*Appalachia, The Blue Ridge Parkway & Miller’s Camp



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Bighorn Sheep Rams Wear Biographies on Their Horns

posted: November 6th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Those who follow my blog must surely know I was pleased with the outcome of this election. My entries of the past few weeks will suggest why.

But I also hope history remembers Senator John McCain as more than just a passing candidate. His concession speech was magnificent and he is undisputedly one of America’s most patriotic figures. Given other circumstances he might have won, and had that been the case, I would not have been distressed.


But the election is over, and I want to refocus now on the reason I initially began this blog, and that was to celebrate the beauty of nature. My boat trip this past weekend to Montana’s Wildhorse Island certainly allowed me to do that, for this Flathead Lake island contains more than just magnificent deer. It also contains majestic specimens of bighorn sheep, something about which I know a great deal, having authored a book about the species some years ago.


Rams wear their biographies on their horns. Large annual growth rings tell us this ram is eight, while the "brooming" on the tips tells us this fellow is a gladiator of many contests

While hiking the island, I came across one of the most magnificent specimens I’ve ever seen. Start by studying this photo taken last weekend and you’ll see what I’m talking about, for bighorn sheep rams wear their biographies on their horns.


For starters, you can count the huge growth rings, and my count provides six. Now look at the tips of the horns, which contain a significant amount of “brooming.” This guy has been in a number of battles, and you might wonder how it survives so many head-pounding collisions. Here’s what my research and visits with biologists have informed me. Paraphrased, here’s what I wrote in my book, Mountain Monarchs published by Northword Press.

For starters, the top of the skull is extremely thick with some cellular cushioning beneath it. For even greater padding, ossicones-a tough, gristle-like material-protrude where the horns attach to the skull.


Beneath the ossicones, two layers of bone connect with numerous bony cross sections, much like the honey-coned section of an airplane wing–which further protects the brain. But there is more. All vertebrate skulls contain wavy hairline cracks called sutures. Mountain sheep have sutures that zigzag much more widely than do those found in other mammals. These sutures allow the plates to adjust when horns clash. This movement helps to absorb the shock at the time of impact…

The sheep’s skull protects in yet other ways. Both horn cores are made up of a solid bone. So too are the bones around the nose. As well, when sheep are about 3-1/2 years old, a protective knob of spongy tissue begins to develop at the back of the head, which become more distinct as rams grow older.

Indeed, sheep are a magnificent species and if you’re interested in learning more you can obtain a second-hand copy of my book from Amazon. The photograph shown here was taken with a 60mm Nikon lens mounted on a Nikon D300 body.


*Lunch in Shadow of President Hoover


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And Now Let The Rut Begin

posted: November 3rd, 2008 | by:Bert

Polishing antlers-like this

Polishing antlers-like this

©Bert Gildart: Shortly after docking my jon boat at Wildhorse Island in Montana’s Flathead Lake, Bill Mullin and I hiked into a ponderosa pine forest and were amazed to see the number of trees in a small clump denuded of bark. Before us a dozen saplings had been rubbed so vigorously all bark from ground level to about six feet up was gone. These were fresh rubs, and deer had just recently made them with their antlers. The rubs indicated bucks were growing restless.

Though it seemed early for the rut, we were delighted, for when mule deer are preoccupied they are less concerned about photographers. For us that was good news, and Bill was so ecstatic he offered to demonstrate the way in which bucks can denude a tree of its outer layer. Though I thought of several comments I could make, Bill, as a retired USFWL Service biologist, took the high road, saying that bucks rub trees to remove the velvet from their antlers, which are starting to itch. In so doing, antlers soon glisten and their tines are made even sharper.


Before long, we saw yet other examples of behavior exhibited during mating season. Topping a ridge, beneath us we saw a small herd of bucks and does. As we descended we watched two bucks of disproportionate sizes seeking the affections of one of the does. Though no fight resulted, the much larger buck suddenly turned on the smaller.

Scampering off, head down, the vanquished demonstrated that in nature at any rate, the stronger and larger animal is generally the one who will pass on its genes. However, if two males of approximately equal size meet, they will posture and possibly lock antlers in a dramatic pushing contest to establish breeding rights.

The vanquished

Vanquished buck skulks away

Like all members of the deer family, mule deer grow and drop their antlers once each year. Typically, mule deer have a main beam which splits or forks into two branches with each branch or tine being approximately the same length. Most have four-point antlers with secondary forks arising from these branches. White-tailed deer have a main branch off which arise individual forks.


This past weekend the largest of our mule deer exhibited typical four-point branching. The smaller vanquished buck had but three tines. When fully grown, males often have a total of ten tines, although atypical sets of horns have been recorded with sixty or more “points.”

Venting frustration

Mule Deer buck venting frustration on Ponderosa pine

Bucks use their antlers during courtship, but in the situation we watched the other day, there really was no contest, and the smaller soon vented its frustration on the overhead branches of a tree. We watched as it entwined his antlers in the branches and then yanked and pulled, creating a shower of needles and branches. He remained at it for close to five minutes.

While the number of antler points cannot be used to determine the age of a deer, with proper nutrition older deer generally have larger antlers with more points than do younger deer.


As we climbed even higher, we encountered yet more mule deer bucks. Once again, there was no fighting, but the deer seemed to be attempting to intimidate one another using a technique I’ve always associated with sheep, and that was the lip curl.

Coquette and suitor

Coquette and suitor

From previous trips to Wildhorse, I thought it unusual for deer to be in the rut at this time of year, and we concluded that the rut was just getting under way. I’m hoping the weather will cooperate so I can continue with a photographic documentary on this most dramatic season for the deer.


*Fall in Shenandoah

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