How banding western snowy plovers may help them come back from the brink in California


A tiny ping pong ball-sized western snowy plover chick is held by a researcher just before being banded. Banding chicks allows researchers to follow the movements of plovers and learn more about useful conservation measures. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tiny ping pong ball-sized western snowy plover chick is held by a researcher just before being banded. Banding chicks allows researchers to follow the movements of plovers and learn more about useful conservation measures. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Have you ever noticed a banded bird in the wild and wondered who banded them, why, and what the colors mean? For residents of the west coast, there is a minuscule shorebird for which these bands could mean the difference between survival and extinction of the species in California.

A western snowy plover hunches down to settle into the sand and rest. By laying low in depressions in the sand, the light tan and white birds become virtually invisible to predators scanning the beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A western snowy plover hunches down to settle into the sand and rest. By laying low in depressions in the sand, the light tan and white birds become virtually invisible to predators scanning the beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The western snowy plover is about the size of a sparrow and weighs less than a tennis ball. Its pale tan and white coloration allows it to blend into the sandy beaches it calls home. In fact, as I walked across a beach one afternoon a couple years ago, it took me a moment to figure out that the odd blurs skitting across the sand were snowy plovers and not figments of my imagination. When I realized what the faint movement was, I looked around and saw dozens of snowy plovers running hither and thither catching invertebrates and chasing rivals away from their zone.

Snowy plovers, despite their dainty size, are charismatic and fierce little birds. They seem fluffy and cute at first but watch them zero in on prey or flush a competitor away from their nest and you’ll see a distinct hint of dinosaur in them.

A western snowy plover zeros in on prey just above the tide line at the beach. They hunt tiny invertebrates found on the surface of the sand. Though they look soft and cute, they are actually quite feisty birds and speedy hunters. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A western snowy plover zeros in on prey just above the tide line at the beach. They hunt tiny invertebrates found on the surface of the sand. Though they look soft and cute, they are actually quite feisty birds and speedy hunters. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Dunes and flat beaches are the preferred habitat for the species. Unfortunately, that is also a preferred habitat for humans. Habitat loss and the degradation of habitat has been a key factor in the dramatic decline of the western snowy plover.

This is especially the case in the Bay Area of California. San Francisco used to be mostly a vast network of sand dunes, which was home to a surprising diversity of wildlife, including large numbers of snowy plovers. In a relatively short period of time, the city pushed farther west until it covered the entire peninsula, destroying miles of important habitat.

Habitat loss has occurred all along the coast. Once a common bird from Washington to Baja, the Pacific coast population plummeted until 1993 when it was federally listed as a threatened species. The population stabilized and began a slow increase starting 2000.

According to Pacific Blue, somewhere around 1,500 snowy plovers nest along California’s beaches. And a very small population of them nest in an area on the east side of the San Francisco Bay in what was once salt ponds owned by Cargill.

In 2003, The California Department of Fish and Game gained ownership of the land and has been steadily restoring the area in what is one of the largest wetland restoration projects in the history of the San Francisco Bay area. The Eden Landing Ecological Reserve is 600 acres of flat, open land sprinkled with wetland vegetation, the remnants of the old salt-making structures, and importantly, oyster shells.

The old salt flats have been peppered with oyster shells in an effort to help camouflage western snowy plover nests and hide them from predators such as gulls and ravens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The old salt flats have been peppered with oyster shells in an effort to help camouflage western snowy plover nests and hide them from predators such as gulls and ravens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While some bird species go to great lengths to hide their nests, the snowy plover likes to take the hidden-in-plain sight approach. Selecting sand dunes, shorelines and flat land such as this, they will turn the slightest of indentations in the ground into a nest site. Their eggs are camouflaged to blend in like rocks or speckled sand. And that coloration is all they rely on to protect their eggs from predators, or even unintentional casualties like recreational vehicles driving across the sand dunes.

Western snowy plovers play their eggs in small depressions, relying more on camouflage than cover to protect their nest. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Western snowy plovers play their eggs in small depressions, relying more on camouflage than cover to protect their nest. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The choice of nesting site is likely one of the reasons the chicks are precocious, ready to up and run from the nest site and keep up with the parent within just a couple hours of hatching. As soon as their feathers are dry and they've rested from the enormous effort they put into breaking from their shell, they’re off and foraging for food. It is during this one or two hour window between hatching and mobility that researchers have the best chance of banding snowy plovers.

A few years ago, I and another wildlife photographer, Rebecca Jackrel, were able to tag along behind Caitlin Robinson-Neilson, who was then with the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, as she did her morning rounds checking known plover nests for signs of hatching and, if there were new chicks, banding the tiny fluffy birds.

With an early start to the day, researcher Caitlin Robinson-Neilson gets supplies for banding birds from her car. © Jaymi Heimbuch

With an early start to the day, researcher Caitlin Robinson-Neilson gets supplies for banding birds from her car. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The old Cargill salt ponds have been turned into an ecological reserve called the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. Access is restricted to help protect nesting western snowy plovers and other aspects of the sensitive habitat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The old Cargill salt ponds have been turned into an ecological reserve called the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve. Access is restricted to help protect nesting western snowy plovers and other aspects of the sensitive habitat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Habitat loss and disruption from human encroachment are major factors in the dramatic drop of the western snowy plover population. Areas far enough from human activity where plovers can feed and nest in peace are vital to their survival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Habitat loss and disruption from human encroachment are major factors in the dramatic drop of the western snowy plover population. Areas far enough from human activity where plovers can feed and nest in peace are vital to their survival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson checks that the nest cam is working properly. This allows researchers to monitor the nests without disturbing the birds, and also provides a chance to see what might predate the nests, how, and when, so strategies for protecting nests can be put into place. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson checks that the nest cam is working properly. This allows researchers to monitor the nests without disturbing the birds, and also provides a chance to see what might predate the nests, how, and when, so strategies for protecting nests can be put into place. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The first nest we checked had two whole eggs and one egg broken open with a tiny, tired, still wet chick next to it. Excited that we'd caught this nest at the beginning of the window needed for banding, we retreated to give the chick time to rest and warm up with its mother, who was around 40 yards away and looking on with apparent concern.

We continued with Robinson-Neilson’s rounds checking on the other nests. For the nests that were nearing their expected hatching dates, Robinson-Neilson would hold each egg up to her ear to listen for sounds of peeping or tapping, which are tell-tale signs a chick is beginning to work its way out. Several other nests that weren’t yet close to their hatching dates all, thankfully, still had their eggs.

After around perhaps half an hour, we returned with the tool kit for banding the first chick which would be dry and rested by now.

The flat open area of the salt ponds still provides a sparse amount of cover for the snowy plovers when needed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The flat open area of the salt ponds still provides a sparse amount of cover for the snowy plovers when needed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson picks up one of the eggs at a western snowy plover nest which is little more than a clutch of eggs in a small, soft depression in the dirt. This second of three eggs shows signs of hatching. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson picks up one of the eggs at a western snowy plover nest which is little more than a clutch of eggs in a small, soft depression in the dirt. This second of three eggs shows signs of hatching. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson holds an egg to her ear, listening for any sounds that might tell if the chick inside is ready to work its way out. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson holds an egg to her ear, listening for any sounds that might tell if the chick inside is ready to work its way out. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When we arrived, the second of the three eggs started to move, a definite sign that the chick inside was ready to hatch. Caitlin covered up the two eggs while banding the chick so that they would stay warm. The mother was circling us, again at a distance of about 30-40 yards. She was trying a well-known strategy for luring predators from the nest. Moving in short bursts, she would drag her wing along the ground as she ran, pretending it was broken. It makes the adult look like a more tempting meal to predators than their offspring. When this failed to work with us after several attempts, she stood watching and making alarm calls, waiting for us to be done.

The tiny western snowy plover chick has feathers with similar coloration as its egg, keeping it camouflaged while it rests, warms up, and gathers strength for getting up to join its parent. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The tiny western snowy plover chick has feathers with similar coloration as its egg, keeping it camouflaged while it rests, warms up, and gathers strength for getting up to join its parent. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The western snowy plover chick is nearly dry, and ready to be banded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The western snowy plover chick is nearly dry, and ready to be banded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The adult stays nearby, making short runs while dragging its wing as a ploy. It hopes that by faking an injury, it can lure predators (as in us) away from the nest for a more tempting meal. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The adult stays nearby, making short runs while dragging its wing as a ploy. It hopes that by faking an injury, it can lure predators (as in us) away from the nest for a more tempting meal. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson opened her tool box to reveal the miniature bracelets, soldering iron, tape, and other necessities for banding. A snowy plover chick receives bands on each leg with a specific number and color pattern that will be unique to that individual bird. This way, someone identifying the bird later on can know exactly which individual it is and track it back to where it was born, its age, and other vital information.

The bands are sized specifically for snowy plovers. Because the plovers are born with legs that will stay approximately the same width for their entire lives, there is no concern that the birds will outgrow their bands. Carefully, each band is slid onto the legs, sealed, and wrapped with racing stripe tape for the needed color combination.

Robinson-Neilson gets everything in order for banding and meanwhile places a cloth over the remaining eggs to keep them warm while she works. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson gets everything in order for banding and meanwhile places a cloth over the remaining eggs to keep them warm while she works. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The western snowy plover chick, still tired from its struggle to get out of its egg shell, simply sits patiently in the palm of Robinson-Neilson's hand as she takes notes and gathers tools for banding. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The western snowy plover chick, still tired from its struggle to get out of its egg shell, simply sits patiently in the palm of Robinson-Neilson's hand as she takes notes and gathers tools for banding. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson holds the fragile chick with the utmost care while working with it. The safety of the bird is her primary concern. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Robinson-Neilson holds the fragile chick with the utmost care while working with it. The safety of the bird is her primary concern. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A quick, and very careful, touch with the soldering iron seals the bands. They will then get a small wrapping of race car stripe tape for their color code and to make them extra secure. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A quick, and very careful, touch with the soldering iron seals the bands. They will then get a small wrapping of race car stripe tape for their color code and to make them extra secure. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As Robinson-Neilson finishes up her notes on the chick, it sneaks up into the cuff of her sleeve to get extra warmth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As Robinson-Neilson finishes up her notes on the chick, it sneaks up into the cuff of her sleeve to get extra warmth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As Robinson-Neilson completed banding the first chick, she lifted the cloth that was keeping the other eggs warm and we saw that the egg that was rolling around when we arrived was now cracked open. We watched as the second chick emerged from its shell, so wet and fragile that it is a wonder such a tiny being is capable of the feat.

We wouldn't be banding this chick. We had already spent long enough at the nest and didn't want to stress the adult plover further. Plus, we would have had to wait for the second chick to rest a bit and dry off before handling it. We watched for just a few moments and then left so the family could huddle up together and wait for the third sibling to arrive.

Even though we would band just one chick from this nest, that is considered a success. Often times, the tiny window of 2-3 hours between eggs hatching and chicks already leaving the nest is something the researchers misses entirely. There is a good deal of luck involved in banding these little birds! 

Western snowy plover chicks stay with a parent for about a month before heading off on their own, but it isn't the mother that raises them. They will usually stay with their father while the mother heads off a few days after the eggs hatch to find another mate and hopefully have a second clutch of eggs. For a threatened species, females being able to bringing up two broods each breeding season is a boon.

While the first bird was being banded, the second chick began to hatch. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While the first bird was being banded, the second chick began to hatch. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Breaking out of a shell is a mighty effort for the little birds. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Breaking out of a shell is a mighty effort for the little birds. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The banding helps researchers know the movement of the birds across seasons, their reproductive success rate during each season, and their survival rates among other information, all of which allows the planning of conservation measures such as what areas are most vital to breeding or wintering birds, the threats they face in the areas, and ways to protect them from these threats as much as possible.

SFBBO has a goal of boosting the population of western snowy plovers to 500 breeding pairs, a number that is considered strong enough of a recovery for removal from the threatened species list. To accomplish this, the organization monitors nests to bands birds to determine hatching and fledgling survival rates, and also to figure out what is predating the eggs and how predation can be prevented. They have set up remote cameras to watch nests from a distance at all hours, allowing researchers to see what animals are breaking or eating eggs, which often includes raves, gulls, foxes and other species.

One strategy the SFBBO tried out after noticing gulls predating the eggs was laying out oyster shells all over nesting areas to help further camouflage the eggs. While this worked well the first year, there wasn’t as much success the following years. But this kind of creativity is exactly what the SFBBO is using to help reach the goal of 500 breeding pairs.

Banding may also help to solve mysteries about changes in behavior. For instance, Bay Nature reported in June of 2013 about the return of nesting snowy plovers to Stinson Beach after a three-decade disappearance. But all was not normal among these breeding birds.

Lynne Stenzel of Point Blue told Bay Nature, “Several aspects of this nest were unusual. First, there were five plovers in close proximity while the eggs were being laid; usually pairs are territorial around their nest.  Observers identified three of these birds as females (two wore color bands); the other two were brightly plumaged males. Then, several days after the nest held the usual three eggs, a fourth egg appeared; this is uncommon though not unheard of. And two different plovers, both presumed females, took turns on the eggs for part of the 28-day incubation period. Finally, both males disappeared from the area before the eggs hatched; in snowy plovers, the male usually stays and tends the chicks.”

Bay Nature writes, “The biggest puzzle was that a seeming female assumed the parenting duties at Stinson Beach this year. While plover mates commonly share in incubating eggs, the female normally abandons the nest near hatching time; she may then fly off to breed again elsewhere. The mystery plover at Stinson, after tending the one chick that hatched, has now left the scene. There’s still a chance to verify its actual gender, though ‒ because it is color-banded.”

Using the bands, the researchers knew that the plover was “go:go” meaning green over orange bands on both legs. With this information they knew who the bird was and could also put a call out for birders to watch for this particular plover to see where it was and if it started another nest so the sex could be confirmed (not something that can be done when banding a chick).

The bright color of the bands makes it easy for birders to spot and record individual birds. The information is invaluable when birders report sightings, alerting researchers to where their banded birds are showing up so they can be monitored. Because snowy plovers live an average of only about three years, every sighting is important.

An adult western snowy plover shows off the colored bands that help identify it to researchers. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An adult western snowy plover shows off the colored bands that help identify it to researchers. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Ways you can help the snowy plover recovery:

Be aware of plover nesting or wintering areas and stay clear. Plovers need all the space they can get in what little habitat they have left. During nesting season they need to feel secure to keep on the nest and not abandon their eggs. Additionally, eggs trampled by humans who don't notice nests is one of the causes of nest failure. Meanwhile, during wintering months, plovers need to feel safe foraging to build up the fat reserves needed for migrating and breeding. Keep dogs on leashes when shorebirds of any variety are around as snowy plovers are often mixed in with flocks of other small shorebird species.

Golden Gate Audubon notes, "Because Snowy Plovers live in areas that are also popular locations for human recreation, there is often the potential for frequent disturbance. Recreational activities such as jogging, dog walking, ball games and kite flying are common sources of disturbance. There are natural sources of disturbance too, such as crows and ravens that are attracted to human refuse"

Of note is the fact that negative human influence on snowy plover populations is more than about simply diminishing the amount of habitat the plovers have, but also the protection within the habitats. Point Blue notes that, "Since 2002, we have seen ravens colonize the coast from San Mateo to San Luis Obispo counties by exploiting human infrastructures and food sources. Once absent from these areas, now ravens destroy plover nests along many miles of beach." As is the case with most sensitive wildlife species, more than "just enough" space is needed to fully protect a species -- a buffer zone between humans and wildlife is invaluable.

Balance is possible, though. Golden Gate Audubon adds, "Managing some seashore areas as passive recreation areas can greatly reduce disturbance to shorebirds while providing recreational opportunities such as walking, beachcombing, wildlife viewing and photography."

And of course one significant way you can help is to report sightings if you are in western snowy plover habitat and spot a banded bird. Record the color combinations by leg, top to bottom. For instance, the plover in the photo above would be "right leg: blue over red; left leg: red over yellow". You can send your reports to SFBBO.

A western snowy plover runs toward an invertebrate it spotted in the sand. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A western snowy plover runs toward an invertebrate it spotted in the sand. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This snowy plover tosses back its catch, and you can see what a tiny bite it is. It takes quite a bit of work to catch enough food to build up the fat stores needed for migration and breeding every year. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This snowy plover tosses back its catch, and you can see what a tiny bite it is. It takes quite a bit of work to catch enough food to build up the fat stores needed for migration and breeding every year. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Western snowy plovers weigh just 1.2 to 2 ounces, and are a tiny 6 to 6.5 inches long. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Western snowy plovers weigh just 1.2 to 2 ounces, and are a tiny 6 to 6.5 inches long. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There are only an estimated 2,600 western snowy plovers along the Pacific coast. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There are only an estimated 2,600 western snowy plovers along the Pacific coast. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The adults pictured here are in their winter plumage. During breeding season, they will have darker patches on each side of their neck, across their eyes, and on the top of their heads. The males usually have more distinctly dark patches than the females. But here in winter, both sexes look relatively alike. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The adults pictured here are in their winter plumage. During breeding season, they will have darker patches on each side of their neck, across their eyes, and on the top of their heads. The males usually have more distinctly dark patches than the females. But here in winter, both sexes look relatively alike. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Interior populations of plovers migrate between wintering and breeding seasons. However, coastal populations may migrate or may stay year round. That makes protecting both breeding and wintering areas very important. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Interior populations of plovers migrate between wintering and breeding seasons. However, coastal populations may migrate or may stay year round. That makes protecting both breeding and wintering areas very important. © Jaymi Heimbuch

WesternSnowyPlover.org writes, "Snowy plovers have natural predators such as falcons, owls, raccoons, and coyotes. There are also predators that humans have introduced or whose populations they have helped to increase, including crows and ravens, red fox, and domestic dogs. Humans can be thought of as predators too, because people drive vehicles, ride bikes, fly kites, and bring their dogs to beaches where the western snowy plover lives and breeds. All of these activities can frighten or harm plovers during their breeding season. "

WesternSnowyPlover.org writes, "Snowy plovers have natural predators such as falcons, owls, raccoons, and coyotes. There are also predators that humans have introduced or whose populations they have helped to increase, including crows and ravens, red fox, and domestic dogs. Humans can be thought of as predators too, because people drive vehicles, ride bikes, fly kites, and bring their dogs to beaches where the western snowy plover lives and breeds. All of these activities can frighten or harm plovers during their breeding season. "

With luck and hard work -- and plenty of banding and tracking individual birds -- hopefully the western snowy plover can rebuild their population to levels that will get them off the threatened species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch

With luck and hard work -- and plenty of banding and tracking individual birds -- hopefully the western snowy plover can rebuild their population to levels that will get them off the threatened species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Behind the scenes: The making of the Hundred Acre Woods dog birthday photo shoot


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Curious what it looked like behind the scenes of our photo shoot? Here's everything that went into making our Hundred Acre Woods party happen, from start to finish! 

Scouting

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Natalia knew of a great place that fit the description I gave of my ideal setting. She knows the hills around the Bay Area like the back of her hand and picked a hillside that was perfect. We got together to scout out exactly where we would set up and what time of day would be ideal for the kind of light and mood we wanted to capture.

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Niner and Willow had to test out a few trees and give their input, because of course tree climbing would be part of the fun on party day. We saw so many extraordinary oaks, but there was one in particular that stole my heart. Huge, ancient, with branches coming out every which way, it is one of those trees with stories to tell.

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Once scouting the perfect tree was done, we had to have a bout of the zoomies to blow off steam.

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And of course we had to check with the locals to make sure they were alright with us setting up a party and photo shoot on their turf. They seemed to be alright with the idea.

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Gathering and Making Props

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The next step was making a list of what props would be needed, including what I had, what I needed to make and what I needed to buy. The details are what make a photo shoot come together, so I tried to think of everything that could make the shoot extra special. This is where Pinterest really came in handy. I created a board that had all my ideas in one place so I could see how everything would look together.

I found a dog-sized picnic table, and a tablecloth. Sweet little party hats, a chalk board and slate board, and cupcake papers with candles. I sewed together a simple burlap pennant banner, and wrapped empty cardboard boxes with brown paper and string. I baked up pupcakes from a recipe I used awhile back, and even made little flag picks with each dog's initial on them. 

Everything was placed in a box and checked off the list the morning of the shoot. Also packed was my shot list, which had 7 or 8 photo concepts I really wanted to capture during the shoot and a handful of reminders for the details and basic images I wanted to be sure to get.

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Setting Up

On the day of the shoot, we planned plenty of time to set up before the light got to where we wanted it to be for shooting. Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating a gorgeous sign on the slate board. Niner checked her work just to be sure it was exactly right.  And it was.

Bill set up the table, arranged the packages, and hung the banner. I added in a few extras like mason jars filled with treats. I frosted the pupcakes with liver paste and put a few candles in them.

And of course the dogs helped too. With their expert stick-removal skills they cleared the area for us.  And they made sure the sign was hung nice and crooked (while holding tails, because they love each other that much!).


The Shoot

When everything was set up, the real fun began. As dog lovers, having canid subjects in and of itself is sheer joy, but getting to work with three of our favorite dogs in the world makes it extra special. We know these three dogs inside and out, and it was easy to get them into position for posed shots as well as let them run around to capture the silly spirit of the day. It was, after all, a pawty!

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We all had a great time, and even when it was over,  none of us were truly ready to call it a wrap. Especially Corbin.

This isn't to say the day went off perfectly. It didn't. We changed locations last minute. Niner rolled in cow poo and had to be rinsed off with water from the creek. I forgot to set out some of the props I'd made. A couple times we had to stop everything while random dogs hiking with their humans crashed the party and took their sweet time exploring our set. I didn't pull off some of the images on my shot list because I was distracted with what was evolving in front of me -- which really was more important anyway. So many little things happened that reminded us that even the best laid plans are just plans, and you have to be ready to roll with whatever happens. Especially when working with animals.

But that doesn't mean the planning phases can be skipped. In fact, Photo Lab Pet Photography wrote up a great list outlining how to plan and execute a themed photo shoot. I highly recommend reading through it if you're interested in pulling off your own conceptual shoot.


The Final Cut

All of the work that went into planning and shooting this special birthday party was well worth it. The final images from the afternoon are absolutely priceless to us. They are something I'll cherish not only because they celebrate a special dog in my life, but because it was a collaboration with two photographers I deeply respect and admire, who are also people I feel grateful I get to count as friends. We got to see the shoot from each others' eyes as we swapped images, and we sent countless texts laughing over bloopers and silly moments during the post-processing. I really couldn't possibly be happier about the collaboration and I am certain it is one of many in our future.

To see many of the photos that made the final cut for this shoot, check out "This birthday party has gone to the dogs! The Hundred Acre Woods-style pawty for the pups" blog post! e sure to visit Photo Lab Pet Photography's Tails from the Lab to view Bill and Natalia's favorites as well!

This birthday party has gone to the dogs! A Hundred Acre Woods style pawty for the pups



To celebrate Niner's 4th birthday, I wanted to do something extra fun. A few ideas came to mind, including a picnic, a hiking trip, a play date with friends, a special portrait to mark the day. And then I figured, let's do all of them!

I decided on a party, something with the feel of being in the Hundred Acre Woods among best friends, soft golden sunlight, oak trees and green grass. Then I called up my dear friends and extraordinarily talented photographers Natalia Martinez and Bill Parsons of Photo Lab Pet Photography, who also are the parents of Willow and Corbin, two dear doggy friends of Niner's.

When I asked if they would be interested in pulling off this project -- a picnic party plus photo shoot -- they were more than game. The resulting collaboration is something that had all of us laughing during the shoot, and sighing or squealing at the photos that came of it. Both the photos and the joyful experience of the afternoon are something I'll cherish forever.

These are just some of my favorites from the day. Be sure to visit Photo Lab Pet Photography's Tails from the Lab to view Bill and Natalia's favorites as well!

Niner and Willow hung the party sign with care, making sure it was perfectly not-straight.

Niner and Willow hung the party sign with care, making sure it was perfectly not-straight.

Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating this beautiful chalk sign. It turned into one of my favorite props of the entire day.

Natalia put her amazing drawing skills to work creating this beautiful chalk sign. It turned into one of my favorite props of the entire day.

I baked up dog-friendly pupcakes, and layered liver-paste frosting on top. The dogs were great about waiting until the 'okay' from us before diving in.

I baked up dog-friendly pupcakes, and layered liver-paste frosting on top. The dogs were great about waiting until the 'okay' from us before diving in.

After the table was set up, the three dogs were let loose to go check it out! They were more than ready to get the party started.

After the table was set up, the three dogs were let loose to go check it out! They were more than ready to get the party started.

Corbin likes to sport a jaunty look and set his party hat at a rackish angle. He's just bursting with cute.

Corbin likes to sport a jaunty look and set his party hat at a rackish angle. He's just bursting with cute.

Willow loved her party hat but what I love most is that her ears are almost as tall as the hat itself!

Willow loved her party hat but what I love most is that her ears are almost as tall as the hat itself!

Corbin, Willow and Niner were all smiles when it came to party time. But first... presents.

Corbin, Willow and Niner were all smiles when it came to party time. But first... presents.

We let the dogs play with the presents and they set off with them. Willow ended up running joyfully all over the countryside with a box in her mouth. But finally Niner got a hold of one.

We let the dogs play with the presents and they set off with them. Willow ended up running joyfully all over the countryside with a box in her mouth. But finally Niner got a hold of one.

The pride with which Niner trotted back with a box in tow is just too much.

The pride with which Niner trotted back with a box in tow is just too much.

Presents, he thinks, are awesome.

Presents, he thinks, are awesome.

But after presents, the dogs were eyeballing that stack of pupcakes. It was time for the feast to begin.

But after presents, the dogs were eyeballing that stack of pupcakes. It was time for the feast to begin.

Each dog was given a cupcake and the go-ahead to enjoy. It's not every day you get to eat your fill of such big treats!

Each dog was given a cupcake and the go-ahead to enjoy. It's not every day you get to eat your fill of such big treats!

Willow thinks that frosting-first is the only way to eat a cupcake.

Willow thinks that frosting-first is the only way to eat a cupcake.

In an eating contest, Willow and Niner competed to see who...

In an eating contest, Willow and Niner competed to see who...

...could get the most frosting on their nose...

...could get the most frosting on their nose...

...and lick all of it off first. It was pretty much a tie.

...and lick all of it off first. It was pretty much a tie.

But the winner of who could knock over the most cupcakes seemed to go to Niner, who enjoyed every minute.

But the winner of who could knock over the most cupcakes seemed to go to Niner, who enjoyed every minute.

And once the cupcakes were done, they remembered that they each had a jar of treats to enjoy as well.

And once the cupcakes were done, they remembered that they each had a jar of treats to enjoy as well.

Going for consistency in knocking things over,  Niner dove into his treats as well, with Willow looking on and politely waiting for an in.

Going for consistency in knocking things over,  Niner dove into his treats as well, with Willow looking on and politely waiting for an in.

Overall, I think the birthday boy had a great party.

Overall, I think the birthday boy had a great party.

The dogs looked on at the wreckage of the party and seemed pretty satisfied with it, but...

The dogs looked on at the wreckage of the party and seemed pretty satisfied with it, but...

... had to make one last check for crumbs.

... had to make one last check for crumbs.

And there were some to be had.

And there were some to be had.

I think we'll do it all over again next year.

I think we'll do it all over again next year.

Get a peek behind the scenes and see what went into the planning, preparation and posing for this shoot! You can see the collaboration from my end in this post, and also learn the things you need to consider to pull off your own conceptual photo shoot. I can't wait to work with this amazing duo again.

A beautiful (and very up-close) moment with a bobcat


A young bobcat sits in a meadow, listening for the tiny, soft sounds of rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A young bobcat sits in a meadow, listening for the tiny, soft sounds of rodents. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Every so often, wildlife makes things easy for you.

Early one morning at sunrise I headed up to photograph some river otters. Or at least I'd hoped to. They were a no-show that morning. It seemed like most everything was a no-show. Some mornings are just annoying like that, and there isn't much you can do to fix it except recognize you're getting skunked and go get a cup of hot coffee. So, I was driving back out to head home when a shape walking across a field caught my eye. A gorgeous young bobcat was strolling across a meadow.

I stopped a little way up the road and opened the car door and paused to make sure I didn't scare her off. She didn't even acknowledge me. I got out, grabbed my camera and walked back toward her. She paused to look at me but didn't change direction at all, and a second later resumed her stroll.

The bobcat walked slowly across the field, pausing every so often to have a listen and staying entirely unconcerned about the photographer tagging along behind. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The bobcat walked slowly across the field, pausing every so often to have a listen and staying entirely unconcerned about the photographer tagging along behind. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I followed, moving mostly parallel to her, pretending I wasn't looking or paying any attention to her, and slowly closed the gap between us. When she paused, I paused, and the little game of shadow went on for a few dozen yards until she stopped to sit and listen to the ground for any sounds of potential brunch.

When she stopped, I stopped, maintaining a distance far enough that I wouldn't put any pressure on her to move away. Turns out that distance wasn't much. This cat's personal space bubble was practically nil. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When she stopped, I stopped, maintaining a distance far enough that I wouldn't put any pressure on her to move away. Turns out that distance wasn't much. This cat's personal space bubble was practically nil. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Ultimately, she let me come to within about 15-20 feet of her and it felt like, had I wanted to, I could have walked up and plunked down next to her to enjoy the morning together. She was so calm, so confident, so unconcerned -- so everything cat.

In this particular park, wildlife is fairly habituated to humans. People pour onto the trails in the afternoons and on the weekends. There had also been road construction in the area recently which, rather than driving wildlife away, seemed to make them even more used to the presence of people and noise. But habituated or not, wild bobcats don't typically let people walk right up to them as if it's nothing. This was a really amazing moment. I knew it, and was doing all I could not to spoil it.

After a few minutes of half-hearted listening to the ground, she decided this was a good spot to just rest awhile. She settled down in a little ball and her eyes drooped, and drooped some more, until she rested her head on the grass for a solid snooze. I took a few photos but when I'd click, her eyes would open slightly. Not wanting to bother her more when she was resting, watched for just a couple minutes more before I quietly backed away and headed to the car, my stomach in a tight knot holding in a squeal of joy.

Eventually, the bobcat decided it was time to stop hunting and take a nap. She curled up in the grass, head up for awhile until her eyes drooped shut and she settled down to sleep. I took my last couple shots and then left her to catch 40 winks in peace. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Eventually, the bobcat decided it was time to stop hunting and take a nap. She curled up in the grass, head up for awhile until her eyes drooped shut and she settled down to sleep. I took my last couple shots and then left her to catch 40 winks in peace. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It's been said to the point of cliche, but it's a beautiful cliche so I'll say it again -- it is a profound honor to have a wild animal be calm and comfortable enough to let you get close, to let you be around to watch as it goes about its business. But to let you be around as it falls asleep? That's really something special.

Related posts:
A nod to nene: How Hawaii's native goose is returning from near extinction
The epic flight and worrying plight of monarch butterflies
An animal of extremes: How the northern elephant seal barely dodged extinction
River otters and their incredible comeback in California's Bay Area