Dogs take a hike! Behind the scenes of the 365DogHikes project


We started the morning shoot with an extraordinary sky filled with pink-hued fog.  The color lasted only a few minutes but photographer Natalia Martinez was ready to capture every second of it for her 365DogHikes project. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We started the morning shoot with an extraordinary sky filled with pink-hued fog.  The color lasted only a few minutes but photographer Natalia Martinez was ready to capture every second of it for her 365DogHikes project. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Toward the top of my list of things most dear to me are my dog and being on a hiking trail. I am certainly not alone in this. Thousands of people take to hiking trails every day with their dogs at their side, tackling everything from short local hikes to thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail (with kennel detours for the dogs for the restricted areas). Companies like Ruffwear answer the call for durable gear for hiking and camping with dogs, there are programs match hikers with shelter dogs to get the dogs out of the kennel for some much-needed exercise and stimulation, and websites like DogTrekker provide details on dog-friendly trails. In short, hiking with your dog is a much-loved activity by many, and something people are emotionally attached to.

That emotional connection, as well as the desire to find local dog-friendly hikes and information about preparedness and gear, is something addressed by a gorgeous new photo-centric project by photographer Natalia Martinez of The Labs & Co. Her new project is called 365DogHikes, a website that brings together gear reviews, tips and training, and gorgeously photographed field notes.

In selecting hikes, Natalia takes a wonderful approach: she asks people to invite her and her rescue dog Willow along on their favorite trails, where they act as guide and tell her all about why they love hiking with their dog in this particular place. As she shadows the hikers, she documents each turn of the trail and joyful moment.

Natalia is both an inspiration to me on the professional front and a kindred spirit and dear friend on the personal front. When she began her project, I was more than eager to jump aboard and go on a hike or two with her and Willow. So at sunrise one spring morning, we met up at the start of a trail where we were greeted by a most fantastic pink sky filled with low thin clouds. While she photographed the hike for her project, I turned the camera and the interview around onto Natalia about everything from how approaches her photography to smart tips for the hiking trail.

Willow is an intrepid explorer and Natalia's constant companion on the trail. Being alone together in nature is an important part of their daily routine, getting the fresh air and emotional recharge they need. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Willow is an intrepid explorer and Natalia's constant companion on the trail. Being alone together in nature is an important part of their daily routine, getting the fresh air and emotional recharge they need. © Jaymi Heimbuch

JH: What do you get out of hiking with Willow? Tell me a little about when this became a routine and what it means to you to get outdoors with your dog.

NM: I think this really became a routine when we moved to the North Bay. Our lab, Corbin, (who was a lot younger then) really enjoyed it. Through my old job, we made a really good friend who introduced me to most of the trails I know and love today. And when Willow came home with us as a behavior foster, hiking became a safe and stimulating outlet for her energy, a great way to teach her to enjoy being a dog and begin to form a bond based on trust and fun.

As a fearful and shy 6-month-old puppy, she missed out on a lot of things. But through hiking and having fun with Corbin and other dog friends, she got to experience new things and be introduced gently to new people and places in a gradual and fun environment.

Corbin has since retired from hiking nowadays (he prefers the beach), and after we claimed our first “foster fail” badge with Willow, she has now become my ultimate hiking buddy and my muse.

The funny thing is, I was so focused on observing how happy hiking made my dogs, that I overlooked how much joy I got out of it. You know what John Muir said about going into the mountains and washing your spirit clean? That’s it. If I can’t get out there and hike often enough, I feel my body and mind take the toll. The same way some folks take to running, or yoga, or meditation… hiking is the same for me, and sometimes a combination of all three.

The act of hiking is one thing, but being able to share it with my favorite dog in the world takes it to a different level. Seeing Willow happy makes me happy, we feed off each other’s joy when we are out in the wilderness. We make each other feel safe, we play, we create photographs, we face uphill challenges and savor conquering new heights.

I can hike without her, but it is just not the same, and I just don’t want to.

Willow looks up with love at Natalia as she breaks out the water dish. Being a safe hiker is important, and that includes taking breaks for water and snacks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Willow looks up with love at Natalia as she breaks out the water dish. Being a safe hiker is important, and that includes taking breaks for water and snacks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What was the catalyst for this project? How did the idea get started and build into what is now 365doghikes?

During my hikes with Willow, I started taking pictures of her with my iPhone. The best camera is the one that is with you, right? We would also work on our training together, mainly “stay,” “perch” and “recall.” After a dear friend nicknamed Willow as “ Willow the Wild,” calling out her wolfish nature, I started thinking more about my composition.

She gave my iPhone pictures more life and personality with her insanely graceful body shape, wolfish yellow eyes and her dark coat turning her into a walking silhouette that would contrast nicely against most backgrounds. I started sharing these photos on Instagram under #willowthewild and it started to grow from there. 

I believe personal projects to be crucial, to keep you inspired and in love with your work. I had been looking for a project for sometime, and I had done a daily or weekly project before, but it didn’t fulfill what I felt I needed. One of my biggest pitfalls is having a deadline. I found that deadlines took the joy out of personal work for me; they became work and I became disappointed in myself if I failed to log my project for the day or the week. So, not having a deadline would be important. Then it just grew out of combining a few of my favorite things: Willow, hiking, photography and writing.

I let my imagination run wild and thought about what my “Everest” would be. Imagine being able to photograph, log and write about 365 different dog-friendly trails… Imagine if it weren’t just me looking for these trails, but people who share that interest, photographing them and their dogs… Why not?

I toyed with making it a 52-week project, but I’d been there, done that and I did not want that deadline. With our work and schedule, not to mention travel and life in general, I wanted something I could find refuge in and just do when I was able to. 365 is just a good and whole number, so that would be it, 365 Dog Hikes. No deadline, just that many different trails and experiences.

Then I just had fun with it, creating a brand for it, a website that would engage people and added one more aspect to it: testing and reviewing gear. Might as well be productive right? Before I knew it, my little personal project started growing wings of its own.

It would not longer be just for me and Willow, but a great channel to network with like-minded people, for anyone out there who shares those passions, an educational resource, and shining a light on great gear made to enhance an active lifestyle with your dog and above it all, following my bliss: photographing what you love. 

Goofing off, enjoying the scenery, taking deep breaths, and generally adoring being in one another's company is a big part of the 365DogHikes project for Willow and Natalia. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Goofing off, enjoying the scenery, taking deep breaths, and generally adoring being in one another's company is a big part of the 365DogHikes project for Willow and Natalia. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What is compelling to you about hiking with other people and their dogs?

Being a super introverted person, I am not readily inclined to be the social butterfly at parties, networking events, etc. I value genuine, one-on-one conversations over small-talk. I would rather listen than talk, and I would rather chat about things I am passionate about.

If my job has taught me one thing, is that I am not alone in those values and interests, and that has been the greatest and loveliest surprise. So I wanted more; I wanted to hike with friends I knew shared my love of dogs and hiking and I wanted to meet new people and dogs who were willing to share their favorite trail and their story.

I am fascinated by all those little things we have in common, regardless of where we live, what we believe in and what kind of dog we have. It is a sense of community and I wanted to create something that pays tribute to that, inspires others and highlights those things we have in common.

I love listening to people’s stories as we hike. Barriers come down and I am honored to be able to catch some of the feelings and moments we talk about in photographs.

And if Willow is along for the ride, she gets to meet new dog friends and new human friends; and any positive experience I can offer her with others is very important to me.

An introverted girl with her introverted dog making new friends through shared passions.

Natalia follows the light, the scenery, the mood, and the conversation during the hikes, as each is an equally important part of creating the photographs that capture the sense of place and time. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Natalia follows the light, the scenery, the mood, and the conversation during the hikes, as each is an equally important part of creating the photographs that capture the sense of place and time. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What do you look for when photographing the hike? How do you manage to capture the feeling of the hike as well as the views?

It’s a bit of a game of balance and multitasking. I listen and chat, and often answer questions, but I am also always paying attention to the light. That is my job: seeing light and how it interacts with my subjects, in this case the dogs, the trail and the person.

I try not to interrupt a story and I let things happen organically, just photographing moments as I see them; but if I see a perfect ray of light, or tree or landscape, I bring my subjects into it.

Paying attention to what my hiking partner is saying about what they love about this place opens my eyes to seeing it, looking for it and ultimately capturing it for them, for us. Every hike is different, and lighting can change the mood in a scene dramatically.

I do try to get one good portrait of the person with their dog. Most of the people I have hiked with have no reservations around being photographed in their favorite place with their dog. I think they know how important this photograph will be as time passes and life happens. We may move away, our beloved dogs become stars in the sky, we form new relationships, etc. But this moment is all it should be, and my photographs will hopefully remind them of what the wind felt like on their face, how cold or warm it was, what scents were in the air and so on.

The same things apply even when Willow and I are hiking on our own. She and I are together in discovering this trail, and she adds that little touch of life and action to any of my landscapes. And at the very least, I am creating those memories for me.

Natalia points out that passion projects are an important part of keeping a photographer creative and inspired. This project has helped her discover what she most loves and hone her niche in companion animal photography. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Natalia points out that passion projects are an important part of keeping a photographer creative and inspired. This project has helped her discover what she most loves and hone her niche in companion animal photography. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What are some of your most memorable hike moments, or particular photos that stand out in your mind?

Magic hour (whether near sunset or sunrise) is always a surprise I look forward to, especially when someone is not used to hiking at these hours and suddenly gets introduced to this beautiful light. Their trail all of a sudden looks very different and they get to enjoy it in a new way.

Like the hike we did with you and Niner - we knew it would be lovely, but I had never seen such a pink sunrise and I don’t know that I’ll ever see anything like it again! What are the odds of us being there for that moment?

I love it when I have met someone for the first time after corresponding via email, scheduling our hike, etc, and you just hit it off. And not only that, your dogs hit it off too. Such was the case when I met Alta and her pack of Cattle Dogs. We had a blast, but Willow and her little girl Leilani took the cake, hiking side by side, tugging and watching over each other.

And catching little moments - unexpected and ones that you would never be able to fake or choreograph - I have so many of those so far and they might be my favorite: Niner jumping on Bill’s back when he was tying his shoe, Nalu putting his arms around Alta causing her to crack up and laugh, Pancake and Willow getting a case of the zoomies… too many to name.

Willow gets to explore new places while hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones. Each hike is more of an adventure with friends! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Willow gets to explore new places while hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones. Each hike is more of an adventure with friends! © Jaymi Heimbuch

What are your goals for readers with this project?

At the very least, to find a good trail to try out with their dog, maybe one they have never tried before and were inspired to try it because they saw our photographs and read about our hike.

To inspire others to take up hiking safely and responsibly with their dogs. To write about our experience with gear and products that can help enhance your time outdoors. To create a deeper sense of community by highlighting what we have in common, and not what makes us different. To inspire readers or visitors to want to form a deeper understanding of their dogs and have fun together.

Dogs make hikes more fun. They don't even have to try. It's their secret super-talent. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Dogs make hikes more fun. They don't even have to try. It's their secret super-talent. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Any big goals down the road? Like a book or guides?

The idea of a book or a guide book once the 365 hikes are complete is very tempting. We’ll have to see. It will at least be a good body of work.

I would love to keep networking, and testing and reviewing more gear. I get a lot of requests to travel outside of CA to document more hikes and I would love to do that, but since it is a personal project at this point,  sponsorship would be the only way I could do that unless I happen to be traveling in the area.

This project has also helped me hone down my dream client and my dream target market: outdoor, adventure, active lifestyle with dogs. It has started to open a few doors for us, which is amazing.

I would also like to eventually open the blogsite to other contributors, so that more dog-friendly trails can be logged and written about, making it a well-rounded resource for dog hikers everywhere.

Exploring new trails and enjoying old favorites through someone else's eyes is all part of the magic of the 365DogHikes project. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Exploring new trails and enjoying old favorites through someone else's eyes is all part of the magic of the 365DogHikes project. © Jaymi Heimbuch

What are some of the most important tips you have for people who want to enjoy hiking with their dog?

There are a couple of investments to take very seriously to make the most out of hiking with your dog: a good pair of shoes and a good set of skills for you and your dog.

Invest time and effort in your dog’s training by making it fun for both of you. Gain important trail skills such as a reliable recall, polite walking when on leash, an “easy” or “wait” command when going down a steep hill on leash, and moving off to the side to let others pass you by in peace.

Never take your dog’s (or your own) safety and comfort for granted. Bring water and snacks, always. 

Please be kind to others, please.

Mind leash laws, not just for the sensitive wildlife and ecosystem, but for those who need space from other dogs and people, and for your fellow dog-hikers. As more and more areas become less welcoming to dogs, I feel it important for those of us who love enjoying these places together to lead by example. Willow is not a dog park dog, she is not a “walk-around-the-neighborhood” dog either. We need these peaceful places away from the crowded streets to decompress and reconnect, and I know there are many dogs out there with similar needs.

But always, always be kind, to yourself, to your dog, to others and to the trail you are enjoying. 

It is my sincere hope that being responsible with our dogs will allow us to go more places together. 

*   *   *

Willow knows Natalia always keeps goodies around for rest breaks during hikes. © Jaymi heimbuch

Willow knows Natalia always keeps goodies around for rest breaks during hikes. © Jaymi heimbuch


I have a blog post coming soon covering this last topic, which will address the ways we impact wild flora and fauna on the hiking trail without even realizing it and how to be an ecologically aware hiker with our dogs by our sides. By being aware and responsible when hiking with our dogs, we can play a big role in keeping trails open to our four-legged companions.  In fact, this is one aspect of the 365DogHikes project I love; Natalia takes the time to discuss the care and thought that goes into everything from safety to having a light footprint. These are just as important to a joyful hike as the weather and the light in your dog's eyes as they take in the wilderness around them.

But I think what I love most about Natalia's project is that you feel like you've gone on the hike alongside her just through her images. She captures the details, the mood, the feeling of the hike -- as I say often, her images have soul. So if you have an emotional connection to dogs and the outdoors, you're going to see it reflected and amplified in her photo-essay Field Notes from each hike. You will certainly be inspired to try the trails out yourself, just to experience the same beauty in person.

See our morning through Natalia's lens in her Field Notes for this hike, and explore the rest of her project on her website, on Instagram, and on Facebook.

You never know when you're going to get to see something truly magical, like pink fog hanging low in the sky at sunrise. If that's not inspiration to get outside more often, I don't know what is. © Jaymi Heimbuch

You never know when you're going to get to see something truly magical, like pink fog hanging low in the sky at sunrise. If that's not inspiration to get outside more often, I don't know what is. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Controversy over tule elk conservation on the rise as California's drought worsens


Tule elk is a small subspecies of elk found only in California. They were the dominant ungulate in the area until the arrival of the Spanish settlers. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tule elk is a small subspecies of elk found only in California. They were the dominant ungulate in the area until the arrival of the Spanish settlers. © Jaymi Heimbuch


The story of the tule elk seems to be perpetually wrapped up with the story of cattle ranchers.

In late 2013, I wrote an article about the surprising story behind the tule elk species. The smallest subspecies of elk, and the only elk endemic to California, the tule elk was nearly erased from the earth forever. It was a cattle rancher who saved the species.

From How a cattle baron saved California's elk from extinction:

“It came down to one breeding pair of elk, discovered in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Huge herds once covered the California landscape, with numbers estimated to be over 500,000. But, like so many species, they suffered at the hands of the Europeans. The elk were hunted for food and hides by Americans arriving to the west coast, especially during the gold rush of 1849.

"By 1873, elk hunting was banned by State Legislature but it was too late. The damage was done and tule elk were thought to be extinct. That is, until that tiny band with its single breeding pair was found in the tule marshes on the land of cattle baron Henry Miller in 1874 by a game warden named A. C. Tibbett. Miller told his ranch hands to keep the elk safe, and it is this action that is credited with sparing the species from disappearing altogether.”

A tule elk cow moves through the scrub brush during a foggy May morning at Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tule elk cow moves through the scrub brush during a foggy May morning at Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A healthy tule elk bull bugles at sunrise during the rut. The rutting season lasts from early August to late October. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A healthy tule elk bull bugles at sunrise during the rut. The rutting season lasts from early August to late October. © Jaymi Heimbuch

With Miller’s death, though, the protection ended. The ranch was subdivided, hunting resumed, and the elk population dropped to just 28 individuals. Hope seemed lost until another rancher, Walter Dow, brought a group of tule elk to his own ranch and allowed them to thrive, though he kept the herd capped at 500 individuals.

Eventually, California's Department of Fish and Game stepped in and, along with more than a decade of work by conservationists, US Congress agreed in 1976 that federal lands would be made available for reserving tule elk, including the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, Concord Naval Weapons Station, Mount Hamilton, Lake Pillsbury, Jawbone Canyon, Point Reyes National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, and Camp Roberts.

Today, there are 22 populations of tule elk throughout California with numbers estimated at around 4,300 individuals.

It seemed like this was a great story of success when I wrote the article. But doesn't address the years of controversy and rivalry between cattle ranchers and the newly rebounded elk herds, which flares up during tough times such as now during a record-setting drought.

Numbers are just one indicator of success for the recovery of a species, but not the only nor even necessarily the most important. The acceptance of and coexistence with a native species is really the ultimate success for conservation. Now that California’s drought is nearing historic proportions with no sign of breaking, tensions are reaching a new high as competition for increasingly dry grazing land tightens. The survival of the tule elk species is still dependent on how ranchers react to their presence even when times are tough, and on how the Department of Fish and Game reacts to pressure from ranchers.

A young tule elk bull walks along the ridge of a hill at sunrise. He and his herd jumped a barbed wire fence separating two pastures leased by cattle ranchers from Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A young tule elk bull walks along the ridge of a hill at sunrise. He and his herd jumped a barbed wire fence separating two pastures leased by cattle ranchers from Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The remains of Pierce Point Ranch. Established in 1858 and operational until 1973, it is one of the oldest ranches on the Point Reyes National Seashore peninsula and was one of the most successful. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The remains of Pierce Point Ranch. Established in 1858 and operational until 1973, it is one of the oldest ranches on the Point Reyes National Seashore peninsula and was one of the most successful. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The ranch represents the long history of ranching and farming in the area, and visitors regularly come to visit and explore the idyllic setting. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The ranch represents the long history of ranching and farming in the area, and visitors regularly come to visit and explore the idyllic setting. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A band of tule elk cows and their newborn calves. In good years with plenty of rain, the herds grow well. But that growth slows in stretches of drought as is occurring now. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A band of tule elk cows and their newborn calves. In good years with plenty of rain, the herds grow well. But that growth slows in stretches of drought as is occurring now. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In an LA Times article from December 2014, a rancher leasing 800 acres in Wind Wolves Preserve, about 10 miles west of Bakersfield, calls tule elk "sorry varmints" and "trespassers." When one is a cattle rancher leasing land in a preserve set aside for wild species, one might reconsider exactly who is the trespasser. Still, this is how many ranchers feel and the Department of Fish and Game is quietly bending to their will.

According to the article, "the agency has quietly stopped expanding herds of the species... Instead, the agency's strategy is to respond to complaints by transplanting 'excess elk' from one herd to another."

As elk become plentiful in an area, to the point of causing grumbling from ranchers, a number of them are transported to another reserve.

This strategy has distinct benefits, both in keeping the peace and in keeping the gene pool as diverse as possible, though some conservationists may feel that the relocations are done for the wrong reasons.

"In 2006, the state relocated dozens of tule elk from the San Francisco Bay Area's Concord Naval Weapons Station to make way for subdivisions," states the article. "This year, dozens of 'excess elk' were moved from a 750-acre pen in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Merced, Calif., to Wind Wolves in Kern County."

Tule elk cows cross along a hillside on a foggy morning at Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tule elk cows cross along a hillside on a foggy morning at Point Reyes National Seashore. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The Bay Area has its own controversy over tule elk. Commercial dairy farmers leasing land from Point Reyes National Seashore are continually asking park officials to keep elk off land leased for grazing.

The park as a whole is 71,028 acres, and dairy farmers use about 28,000 acres of land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes seashore.

According to an LA Times article, "The park service charges ranchers a grazing fee of just $7 a month for a cow and a calf. That fee on private land in neighboring communities ranges from $16 to $25. The homesteads where some ranch families live are leased to them by the park at less than market rates."

The ranchers say that the elk threaten the existence of their business, especially after prolonged drought. But ranchers equally threaten the existence of the elk in drought conditions by pushing for limiting where the elk can roam to get enough food and water.

According to Point Reyes Light, "The fate of many tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore last year largely hinged on whether or not they were enclosed in a fence. The fenced herd at Tomales Point dropped by 20 percent during 2014, while the two free-ranging herds grew, according to seashore wildlife ecologist Dave Press. The seashore attributes the success of the free-ranging herds to their ability to seek out forage and water at a time of drought."

A tule elk cow and her nearly grown calf move through dry brush on a winter morning. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tule elk cow and her nearly grown calf move through dry brush on a winter morning. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is a twist of irony here. The Park Service recently began to create a ranch management plan after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a promise to maintain the ranching and farming heritage along the Point Reyes seashore - but it is a heritage that began during (and partially caused) the near extinction of the tule elk species in the first place.

How can these two things - ranching and the preservation of a species considered incompatible with ranching - coexist?

And coexist they must. Bay Area conservationists are unlikely to allow the tule elk, a native species and a tourist attraction, to plummet back down to former low numbers. The proof is in the public comments:

"The vast majority of the 3,094 public comments on a ranch-management plan support allowing a free-roaming tule elk herd on the peninsula, with 90 percent urging the park to make protection of the native animals a priority," reported the SF gate in October 2014.

"The public doesn't want these elk relocated, fenced into an exhibit, shot, sterilized or any of the other absurd proposals from ranchers who enjoy subsidized grazing privileges in our national seashore," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, who promised a legal and public relations fight if the park decides to fence or relocate the elk. "I think on balance the cattle are eating more grass that's supposed to be going to wildlife than the other way around."

Coastal California is one of the rare places where conservationists might just have as much political pull as cattle ranchers. Maybe just enough to keep elk numbers slowly growing. The elk will of course never rise back to their historic population of a half-million individuals, but will the current 4,300 elk at least be allowed to grow over 5,000? Over 10,000? For perspective, California is currently ranked fourth for cattle production with 5,150,000 head in 2015. (More than 50 percent of the total value of U.S. sales of cattle and calves comes from the top 5 states, underscoring California’s pull as a cattle producer. The conservation of elk is up against a significant amount of political clout.)

The 22 herds of tule elk in California are isolated populations. It is difficult for elk to move between the herds because of human development. It is up to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to move elk from place to place to keep the species genetically healthy and to reduce conflict with farmers. But where else can they go? If they are on reserves and yet still facing pressure from cattle ranchers also utilizing those reserves, what next?

Tule elk population distribution maps from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

A study at the Tomales Point Elk Reserve indicated that the elk are crucial in maintaining the biodiversity of grasslands, preventing them from turning into shrub-dominated ecosystems. They help to maintain biodiversity among both native and exotic flora species, while also reducing the invasive and problematic Holcus lanatus grass.  © Jaymi Heimbuch

A study at the Tomales Point Elk Reserve indicated that the elk are crucial in maintaining the biodiversity of grasslands, preventing them from turning into shrub-dominated ecosystems. They help to maintain biodiversity among both native and exotic flora species, while also reducing the invasive and problematic Holcus lanatus grass.  © Jaymi Heimbuch

The 22 elk populations in the state are relatively isolated, and maintaining genetic diversity falls on the Department of Fish and Wildlife as they move 'excess elk' from one herd to another. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The 22 elk populations in the state are relatively isolated, and maintaining genetic diversity falls on the Department of Fish and Wildlife as they move 'excess elk' from one herd to another. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Cattle ranching can often be at odds with native species like elk that compete for land (and predators, but that’s a topic for another article). Thankfully, it was a cattle rancher who saved the elk in the first place and who can still in some ways act as an inspiration for others. So too can cattle ranchers with an eye for holistic management.

Bay Nature recently reported on the importance of ranchers and their role in land stewardship: "Sasha Gennet is a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy of California, which works to assemble and manage large protected landscapes for biodiversity and climate resilience. 'Managed rangelands are so important for both natural and human communities,' she says, 'from the fresh water that flows off them into creeks and reservoirs to the weed-munching services provided by cattle, which helps keep the wildflowers blooming and the native frogs and salamanders breeding. And keeping ranchers in business means that the land doesn’t end up getting paved over.'"

A tule elk bull moves his harem along a sea-side cliff at sunrise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tule elk bull moves his harem along a sea-side cliff at sunrise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tule elk bull in rut. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A tule elk bull in rut. © Jaymi Heimbuch

During the rut, bull elk will thrash the scrub brush in a display of dominance. The bulls grow and shed a set of antlers once each year. © Jaymi Heimbuch

During the rut, bull elk will thrash the scrub brush in a display of dominance. The bulls grow and shed a set of antlers once each year. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tule elk bulls are ready to warn off anyone interested in their harem. It isn't unusual during the rut to have challengers hanging around the outskirts of a harem, ready to battle or steal a cow. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Tule elk bulls are ready to warn off anyone interested in their harem. It isn't unusual during the rut to have challengers hanging around the outskirts of a harem, ready to battle or steal a cow. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Finding the delicate balance between keeping land safe and protected for wild native species while still also carefully utilizing it for the benefits of humans is difficult and essential. To reach this point, conservationists and ranchers and farmers have to learn how to work together, how to have conversations and not debates.

The preservation of wildlife and jobs is not and can never be an all or nothing approach for either side. Sacrifices and compromises from both sides are part of finding solutions that benefit the entire ecology of an area.

One rancher interviewed for the Bay Nature article is Doniga Markegard of Markegard Family Grass-Fed near the Santa Cruz Mountains, who is walking this very delicate line successfully. Bay Nature writes, "She had a background in nature-based education and permaculture, with experience as a wildlife tracker, when she met her husband, Erik Markegard. He is a sixth-generation rancher raised on a 2,000-acre ranch in San Mateo County owned by musician Neil Young, where he learned the ropes by helping his father manage the ranch. After Doniga and Erik got married, they moved on to a nearby ranch on the San Mateo coast where Erik had been raising his own cattle since 1987. Both Doniga and Erik are keenly attuned to the value of healthy food and healthy landscapes. They guide the grazing of their cows and sheep using movable electric fences to avoid overgrazing and soil erosion, a practice known as holistic management."

Days Edge Productions created a fantastic video highlighting ranchers who take land stewardship seriously. I watch this and imagine what Henry Miller might say to today's ranchers who view the native species he helped save from extinction as competition or danger to their businesses. I imagine him and Walter Dow pointing out that they are part of the natural landscape, were here first, are a unique species found nowhere else, and are something to work with rather than against. As stewards of the land, we owe it to them.

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

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!