Tag Archives: Colorado

Story of a photo: mountain goats on Mount Evans

This picture of mountain goats is one of my favorite pictures that I took in 2016, and indeed one of my favorite pictures in my portfolio. I think this is a quintessential Colorado photo, with the two goats, the great mountain view, snow and sunshine.

Mountain goats on Mount Evans
Mountain goats on Mount Evans

It combines my passions of wildlife and landscape photography. From a landscape perspective it has good depth and balance and a range of interesting features, with the texture of the snow in the foreground, the rocks in the middle distance, the mountains in the background and nice clouds in the sky. From a wildlife perspective, the adult goat has quite an imperious pose, looking out into the distance as though surveying his kingdom, and the baby is mimicking this behind him. The whole photo is very sharp and well focused, from the close up snow to the distant mountains.

I have been to Mount Evans many times and have a large collection of good mountain goat photos. Whenever I go these days, I am not just looking for a nice sharp picture of a mountain goat, it has to be more than that. It has to have great scenery in the background or be doing something interesting. So I am always thinking about the background of the photo in addition to the subject. In some cases, if the animals are relatively still, you have time to make your composition. In other cases, like this one, they are moving quickly and you don’t have much time.

The taking of the photo required a combination of a few things, including observation, anticipation, quick thinking and a bit of luck, which you always need to some degree to get this sort of combination of things in a photo. I was driving up Mount Evans and getting fairly close to the top, and constantly scanning around looking for wildlife, which is tricky as it’s a very twisty and dangerous road so you can only take your eyes off the road very briefly. I spotted a goat’s head poking above a ridge of snow higher up on the mountain, some distance away. I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, at the apex of a hairpin turn which looked out over the view you see in the picture. I had a long zoom lens on the camera as I usually do when looking for wildlife, and got a couple of quick shots of the goat in the distance.

Here is the first shot I took of this goat. This was taken with my Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens (200-800mm equivalent), which is a fantastic lens, very light and compact for the reach it has. It was only zoomed to 156mm (312mm equivalent).

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As an aside, I was curious how far away the goat was at this point, and so did a bit of research on how to estimate this based on the size of the goat in the photo, and knowing the focal length of the lens. I found this handy web page for calculating the distance of an object of known size in your photo. According to National Geographic, a typical mountain goat is 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, so using that as an estimate I got this result:

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So the goat is a little over a hundred feet away at this point. This calculator is a cool little tool!  This shot was taken at 4:47:18.

At 4:47:21, three seconds later, I took this shot, and obviously had now figured out that there was a baby too, so I was excited about that.

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This shot was taken 2 seconds later at 4:47:23, so clearly the goats are moving fairly quickly and the scene is changing.

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The final shot I took with my big zoom lens was the following one, at 4:47:58, and at this point the goat is an estimated 40 feet away from me, so it has traveled around 60 feet in 40 seconds, heading pretty much straight down the mountain. My lens is at its widest zoom of 100mm (200mm equivalent) at this point.

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By this point I realized that they were coming pretty much in my direction, and might well walk very close to me, and if I was lucky they might walk in front of the spectacular mountain view to my left. But clearly I needed a wider angle lens in order to fit in the goats if they got any closer, and to fit in the mountain scene in the background. A real key to the image that I got was that I was visualizing the shot that I really wanted to get, and I was anticipating what the goats were going to do (while taking pictures at the same time).

One advantage of using a wide angle lens is that it has a larger depth of field than a larger zoom like this one, so you have the possibility of getting a shot with a nearby subject in the foreground, and a distant background, and having both in focus. If you look at the first goat shot above, taken at 312mm equivalent focal length, the goat is in focus, but the rocks that are further away are not. So I quickly scrambled to get my Lumix 14-140mm (28-280mm equivalent) lens which was in the car, and switch that onto my (Lumix GX8) camera. The first shot I got with the wide angle lens on the camera was 24 seconds after the last shot with the big zoom lens, and by this point the goat was 19 feet away. So it’s important in this sort of situation to be decisive and act quickly.

As I was changing the lens I was also thinking about what camera settings to use. I knew I would need a large depth of field to get both the goat and the background in focus, so I would want a relatively small aperture, though I would be helped by using a wider angle lens as I mentioned previously. But I also needed a fairly fast shutter speed in order to make sure I froze the movement of the goats and kept everything sharp. The goats were walking quickly and I knew I would only have a few seconds to get my shots in. So I decided to trust the auto mode (P mode) on my Lumix GX8, which is something I am a big fan of doing. Many good photographers turn their nose up at P mode, but in my experience on modern cameras (my GX8 in particular) the camera generally makes good decisions in most situations, and lets me concentrate on the important matter of making sure I get the right content in my image. This can make a key difference in situations like this when time is very tight. I watch what settings it is using as I shoot, so if I don’t think it is making good choices I can switch to another mode if needed.

One bit of random good luck I had in this instance, which I only found out after the fact, was that somehow in grabbing the camera quickly when I first got out of the car, I accidentally changed the ISO setting from “intelligent auto” to ISO 800, which is a setting you would normally use in somewhat low light. The light was very bright for this picture, so having a higher ISO setting had the effect of the camera choosing both a smaller aperture and a faster shutter speed than it would have done with the auto ISO setting (I assume), both of which were what I wanted. I think I would have still got a good shot without this ISO change, but this inadvertently helped make sure I got the sharpness and depth of field I was looking for. This technique of using a higher ISO in good light is potentially a good one to use intentionally if you are looking for both a fast shutter speed and a large depth of field, whether using P, S, A or M modes.

Once I had the right lens on, I just remained still next to my car as the goats walked quickly down the mountain, and fortunately they did indeed walk by where I hoped they would. My distance estimator says that the goats were about 14 feet away from me at this point. This is probably a good point to say that of course you should not approach wild animals too closely, and this is closer than I would normally approach a goat. However, on Mount Evans the goats are very accustomed to having people around, and my experience there is that if you just stand or sit still they will often come quite close but just ignore you, as they did on this occasion. Plus I was right next to my car, just in case I needed to hop into it!

The goats were walking quickly across the mountain view, so I snapped as many images as I could in high speed burst mode, framing the shots to try to get a good composition for both the background and the goats. Altogether I got a total of 50 shots in the space of about 15 seconds as they walked across my field of view, of which I would say about 36 in the space of 10 seconds were really in front of the best viewing area.

This video sequence is made from the 50 shots I took over the 15 seconds, so gives a reasonable impression of the speed they moved at and the shots I got, though of course it’s a bit jerkier than real life was!

Mountain Goat photo sequence on Mount Evans from Peter Batty on Vimeo.

I got a number of good shots in this sequence. I chose the one at the beginning of this post as the best because I liked the way the large goat is looking out over the mountain view, and the baby is doing the same. But the following are all candidates too.

The top three of these are the same two goats and are all part of that 50 shot sequence in the video. The last one was another goat that followed the first two ten seconds or so later.

There are several factors that make this a unique picture that is hard to reproduce. One is obviously just getting not just one goat but two, and not just any two but a male with good horns and a baby, in a location with such a good view and where I can manage to get this close to them – if this was taken from further away with a longer zoom, it wouldn’t be possible to get both the background and the goats in focus. There are not many spots along Mount Evans Road with such a good view including good details in both the middle and far distance. Another important element of the picture is the snow, especially in the foreground but also in the background, and there is only this much snow for a short period of time after Mount Evans Road opens for the season, normally on Memorial Day (at the end of May). These pictures were taken on June 2. You can also tell this is an early season picture because the goats still have their winter coats – the adult is just starting to lose his very slightly, but for much of the season apart from the beginning and the end the goats are shedding their winter coats and don’t look as nice as they do with a full coat. And on top of all that there is a nice interesting cloudy sky – though still with sun on the subjects.

One of the great things about living in Denver is that you can get these sort of shots after work. On this day I left downtown Denver just a little early, around 3pm, and was up near the top of Mount Evans by 4:30pm.

The $20 accessory that will dramatically improve your outdoor portraits

Photography is a notoriously expensive hobby (or profession!), but this post features a great accessory that is less than $20 :). I mainly do landscape, cityscape and wildlife photography, but this past weekend went out with the family to take some portraits in a sunflower field near Denver Airport. So I took along this reflector, which I bought a few years ago, and it really helped to get some nice pictures. Here it is in action with an iPhone!

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The sun is behind Paula, off to the left hand side of the photo, but it is reflecting from the disk to cast a nice golden light onto her face. Here is how one of the iPhone shots looked with no editing – impressive for shooting directly into the sun! This also shows that the reflector can really help even if you are not using a fancy camera.

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Though the disk is 43″ across when in use, it easily folds with a twist into a 15″ pouch for carrying, and is very lightweight. It’s actually very versatile – the disk I have can be solid white, silver, gold or black, or translucent white, to let you create a range of effects (the base disk is translucent white with a metal hoop, and it has a reversible lightweight cloth cover that provides the other four colors).

I think it’s a remarkably good deal, for just $18.50 from Amazon at the time of writing.

Here is an example of a picture I took of Paula and Nikki, this is the raw image straight out of the camera, with no processing at all.

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Even though I am shooting directly into the sun, you can see that their faces are still fairly well lit from the left hand side. Here I am just holding my camera in my right hand and the reflector in my left hand, which is not ideal – it tends to work a lot better if you can recruit an assistant to hold the disk! The gold color is not too obvious here but comes out more with a little post processing. As a side note, I used a 15mm fisheye lens for this picture, which seems to work well shooting into the sun – I think this is because the sun occupies a much smaller portion of the overall photo than it would with a less wide angle. The other advantage of the fisheye in this situation is that it has a very large depth of field so everything stays sharp and in focus, which is what I want here, so we can see the sunflowers clearly.

The image below is the result of a quick one click edit using Seim Natural HDR presets in Lightroom, which I’m a big fan of – they often given nice results with a single click (this preset is called Big Sky Dynamics, which I use a lot for landscape pictures). I like the effect it provides here.

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Finally I did a quick bit of cloning in Photoshop to remove the cars in the background on the left hand side.

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The other plus of having a reflecting disk is that it makes you look like you’re a professional 🙂 !! Definitely a worthwhile thing to pick up even if you are a very occasional portrait photographer like I am.

 

My mapwheel story

Today I backed a Kickstarter project called Mapwheel, I think it’s a really cool idea. Check out their video, but basically they let you design a custom “toposcope” or map wheel showing the direction and distance of places of interest from the location where you live (or any other location you choose). You can choose various materials (wood or metal) and customize the design in various ways.

I’ve been working on my design today, and it’s been a surprisingly fun and interesting thing to do. Here’s my current design, which could still change before I order:

Map wheel

One part of the process that I found interesting was being surprised in quite a number of cases about which direction it actually was to certain places from here! Especially for places on other continents, the usual map projections that you see can be quite misleading in terms of what is the shortest path direction to somewhere across the globe. There could be a fun party game for map geeks based on this idea, I think! And then a second interesting thing is just filtering down the options to decide which places you want to include, which makes you think about places that are important to you. You are constrained in that you can’t have two places whose direction is too close together, or their names would overlap.

This forces you into some tough choices, especially if like me you live a long way from your original home, as once you choose a place, other places within hundreds of miles will probably be too close to include. I thought it would be interesting to share the thought process of how I arrived at my choices so far. I encourage you to sign up for a map wheel and share your choices too!

I could only choose one place from the UK, which is where I’m originally from. That really had to be Cropston, which is not where I was born, but we moved there when I was three years old and my Mum still lives there now, so that has been “home” all my life. It’s a small village in Leicestershire, in the middle of  England. If I could add more places in England, the next ones up would probably be Oxford, where I went to University, and Cambridge, which has been the headquarters of multiple companies that I’ve worked for so I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years.

I tried various other places that I really like in Europe including Paris, Venice and Ravello, but they were all too close in direction to Cropston, so I couldn’t fit them in. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Horsens in Denmark, where my Mum was born, was just far enough away in terms of direction that it would fit in.

Paula is originally from Santos in Brazil, so that was another must have. Just as with Cropston though, this blocked several other favorite places that would have been contenders in Brazil like Rio de JaneiroFoz do Iguaçu, and Trancoso.

Moving back closer to home, I thought I should have a few visible landmarks on the map wheel – I plan to put it on our rooftop deck. The Ice House and Coors Field are two prominent buildings nearby – you can see them both in the lightning picture that I published recently. Union Station is across the street from us, though not directly visible from the deck, but I thought that needed to be included as a major local landmark. I put in a few of our favorite places that we like to take visitors in Colorado – Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Evans, and Red Rocks. Also Denver Airport went in as we go there so often!

We go the opera in Santa Fe every summer and love it there, so had to fit that in, and we also love Telluride in southwestern Colorado, where we have a fractional  ownership in a property and spend 4-6 weeks a year. Another of our favorite vacation places is Tulum in Mexico, so that went in. I put in Key West – I have visited a few times and think it’s a really cool place, and Paula lived there for a year. I was really upset that I couldn’t get New Orleans in – it’s one of my favorite cities – but it was too close to the direction of Santos (and Key West) so sadly I had to leave it out. I threw in New York as that’s another place we love to visit, for the opera and its many other attractions. And also to have some larger places on the list!

At this point I started working on filling in areas where I had gaps. I found that I could fit in Opera Colorado in Denver, where we have season tickets (and found it was due south of us, which I didn’t know!). And that made me think of adding Central City in Colorado, which is another place where we like to go to the opera – it’s an old mining town with a beautiful little historic opera house. In case you haven’t worked it out by now, we like opera!

I thought about a few more distant places of geographical interest. I wondered about Cape Horn, but decided to go for Tierra Del Fuego, which is a place we would like to visit, and it just sounds cool :). And then added the Cape of Good Hope too, which we have both visited in the past. Just randomly I tried Mount Everest, and was surprised that it showed up in an empty space very close to due north, so that went in too. I still had some gaps in the northwest quadrant, so added Rock Springs in Wyoming where Paula’s sister lives, and I tried a few places in Asia that didn’t fit, before going for Bangkok, which I visited back in 2000, and I found it to be a really cool and interesting place that I would like to revisit sometime. Plus our daughter in law is from Thailand. We also added in Monte Vista, Colorado, where our daughter has just moved to.

I still had a little space just east of due north, so decided to add in Mount Rushmore, which was the main thing I could think of in that direction which was somewhat interesting. And then I had a gap to the east so threw in Kansas City, which is the first reasonable size city you hit driving east from Denver, so is good to show how far apart things are out here!

Oh, and lastly we sneaked in Santiago, to fill in the space just east of due south – in honor of a good family friend from Chile.

A few places that I tried to fit in but couldn’t:

  • New Orleans, as mentioned above – blocked by Santos and Key West
  • Paris, another of my favorite cities – blocked by Cropston
  • Barcelona, another favorite European City – blocked by Coors Field
  • My company Ubisense’s Denver office – blocked by Santos
  • Casablanca, site of one of my favorite movies – blocked by Coors Field
  • Sydney – blocked by Mount Evans
  • San Diego – blocked by Red Rocks
  • Hawaii – blocked by Union Station
  • Grand Canyon – blocked by Red Rocks

So anyway, that is probably way more detail than you were interested in, but like I said I found it a fun and interesting exercise to work through the process of choosing our places! Let me know if you think I should change anything! And if you get a map wheel of your own, I’d be interested to see which places you choose!

Panoramas in Lightroom

One of my favorite new features in Lightroom 6, the most recent edition, is the ability to stitch multiple photos together into a panorama. Both of my Lumix cameras have the ability to create panoramas on the fly while panning with your camera, but that approach only creates JPEG files and you have much less control. With Lightroom you can merge multiple RAW images and then continue to edit the merged panorama as a RAW image.

Above is an example of elk grazing in front of Wilson Peak, taken from Last Dollar Road just outside Telluride as the sun was setting. The light was very challenging on this one – the elk in the foreground were in the shade and there was a bright light on the mountains and sky at the back. So I had to do a lot of raw processing to get the image looking reasonable, and wouldn’t have been able to do this if I’d just had a JPEG panorama from the camera. This one was created from two images and is 7301×2879 pixels, about 21 megapixels.

This one is taken in the same general area, a little further up Last Dollar Road, and shows a wider panorama of Wilson Peak and its neighbors, made from 5 overlapping RAW images. This one is 14270×2851 pixels, or 41 megapixels. Another important thing to remember when taking a panorama is that you want to make sure you have a consistent exposure across all the pictures. The easiest way to do this is to press and hold the exposure lock button while you take all the pictures. The exact details of how to do this will vary depending on your camera.

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The picture above is actually one I tried taking using the camera’s built in panorama function at the same location as the previous image, and it was not very successful at all in this case. There are a couple of places where the stitching just didn’t work and there’s an obvious discontinuity in the image, and there are several more places where the exposure doesn’t match and you see bands in the image (in the sky in particular). Usually the in camera function works better than this, but in this case in particular the one created in Lightroom was hugely better.

The basic panorama functionality in Lightroom is very easy to use – just select the images you want to combine into a panorama, and choose Photo -> Photo Merge -> Panorama, and choose the default settings. Adobe has a nice 8 minute video tutorial if you want to understand more detail about the capabilities and various options. I even found out from this that you can do HDR panoramas, which is pretty cool! I have an HDR panorama version of the top image here, made from 3 different exposures on both the left and the right side, but the end results looked pretty similar in this case. However, this could be useful in some situations.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

This final example, of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, is a little different from the others in that it’s not a wide panorama. In this case it’s a combination of 3 pictures taken with a portrait orientation, which let me better capture the full height of the canyon. Its full dimensions are 6297×4024 pixels, or about 25 megapixels, compared to 16 megapixels for a single image from my camera.

Where to photograph wildlife in Colorado

This is the first in a series of posts on how to take better wildlife photos.

Top of the list is figuring out where to go (and when). It may sound obvious but it really is the most important thing. You can go to several of the places listed here and have a great chance of getting some excellent pictures just pointing and shooting with your iPhone. No matter how fancy your equipment or how great your technique, you won’t get good pictures unless you go to places with the right subject matter!

By the way, when I say you can get good pictures with your iPhone, please don’t be this person! But for example, here’s a recent picture from Rocky Mountain National Park taken by my partner Paula from the passenger window of our moving car, with a compact camera without a big zoom (Lumix LX7), in auto mode.

Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk at Rocky Mountain National Park

These days there is so much information available online that it is easy to research. Look on Facebook for wildlife photography groups in your area (or an area you are planning to visit), try local meetups, or just search on Google. I am fortunate to live in Colorado which is a great place for wildlife photography. An excellent resource is the Front Range Wildlife Photographers (FRWP) group, who have both a meetup group and a very active Facebook page. The Facebook page is both a source of inspiration with many great pictures posted every day, and a supportive community. It’s also a great place to get an idea of good places to go, and good times. A little while ago someone posted a picture of a baby buffalo at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which prompted me to go out there the next day, and I got some nice pictures of the baby – and there have been other examples like this.

In the rest of this post, I share some of my favorite spots for wildlife photography in Colorado, and what you are most likely to see at each. Of course there is no “sure thing” when photographing wildlife, that’s part of what makes it exciting, but it’s very rare that I have been to any of these places and not seen something interesting.

You can buy a range of prints of any of the images in this post at batty.photos – just click on any picture to go there.

 Rocky Mountain Arsenal – Bison


Rocky Mountain Arsenal is on the north side of Denver, just a 15-20 minute drive from downtown. It was once a chemical weapons manufacturing site, but is now one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the country. This is a great place to get good pictures of Bison. The bison enclosure is the square area to the left of this map. You have to stay in your car while in this area. The bison also have access to an area to the north of this space, which visitors do not have access to. So they may or may not be visible. There is a gap in the fence about half way along the north side of the enclosure, and I have had good luck parking close to this and getting pictures of the bison as they walk through this in either direction. I have found late afternoon, around 5pm, to be a good time to see them in this location – but obviously there are no guarantees! I usually drive around the bison enclosure when I first arrive, then explore other areas if there is no action there, and revisit once or twice before leaving. The Arsenal is also a good place to see bald eagles, though I haven’t had much luck with those there, and other birds, deer, and more.

Rocky Mountain National Park – Elk

At Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
As I said, of course there are no guarantees in wildlife spotting, but at Rocky Mountain National Park you will definitely see some spectacular mountain scenery. You will almost certainly see some elk too, and quite likely in significant numbers. Good places to spot them include Moraine Park, near the Beaver Meadows entrance, and higher up on Trail Ridge Road, which is a must visit for the scenery (but is closed in winter). In the fall and winter you may well see elk wandering through the town of Estes Park. There are plenty of other animals you can spot there too, including marmots, big horn sheep, and moose. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Denver, so a comfortable day trip.

Mount Evans – Mountain Goats

Mount Evans has become my number one thing that I do with out of town visitors whenever I can. It is one of only two “14ers” (14,000 foot peaks in Colorado) that you can drive to the top of, going up the highest paved road in North America. It’s a spectacular drive and you are almost certain to see mountain goats somewhere near the top. The shot above is several years old but remains one of my favorites – I love the dynamic movement of the goat, and the background. You will often see bighorn sheep here too, and marmots. Mount Evans is an easy drive west of Denver – I love that I can leave downtown Denver at 3pm and still do a comfortable trip to Mount Evans – it takes about an hour to get to the beginning of the Mount Evans Road, and then it’s a 14 mile steep and windy drive to the top from there. Stopping at Beau Jo’s original pizza place in Idaho Springs on the way back is a well established tradition – I recommend the BBQ pie, my favorite pizza anywhere :). The Mount Evans road is normally open from Memorial Day (late May) to Labor Day (early September) – though in 2015 it has still not opened in mid July, due to lots of snow last winter which delayed reconstruction work on the road.

Waterton Canyon – Bighorn Sheep

Waterton Canyon is a new destination for me, I only went there for the first time in 2014. I was made aware of it by the FRWP Facebook page. This seems to be by far the best place to spot bighorn sheep. It is on the southwest side of Denver, not far off C-470, about 30 minutes from downtown. There’s a parking lot just after the Audubon Nature Center – park there and you can either walk or ride a bike up the (smooth) dirt road that runs up the canyon. I took the picture above at about 1.5 miles up, which seems to be a fairly common area to see sheep. The road goes up for 6 miles, and larger sheep are often seen nearer to the top, so a bike is a good idea if you want to get up that far. Waterton Canyon has its own Facebook page for photography which is a great source of good photos and information. You can see plenty of other wildlife there too – a number of people have posted pictures of bears from there, though I still haven’t managed to see a bear in the wild, there or elsewhere!

Brainard Lake – Moose

Brainard Lake is one of the best spots for seeing moose in Colorado. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times. It is near Nederland, west of Boulder and about an hour’s drive from Boulder or an hour and a half from downtown Denver.

City Park – Birds

In City Park, Denver

City Park in downtown Denver is a great place to spot a whole load of birds. The small island on the south side of Ferril Lake has dozens of nests of herons, egrets, cormorants and more. This is another new spot for me, and I have to confess I don’t know if they are there all year round, but certainly in June and July there are lots of birds, and lots of interesting activity to photograph! There is parking along 17th – try somewhere around the intersection with Steele – and it’s a short walk from there.

Belmar Park – Birds

At Belmar Park, Denver, Colorado

At Belmar Park, about 15 minutes drive from downtown, you can see a very similar range of birds to those I mentioned at City Park. I was there recently, in June 2015, for a FRWP meetup, which was a great outing. I got lots of good pictures of blue herons and cormorants, as well as some nice ones of a mother and baby avocet including the picture above. You can park in Belmar Library parking lot, and walk to the gazebo on the east side of the lake for a great view of the island in the middle of the lake where the birds nest.

And more …

Of course there are many, many great places to photograph wildlife in Colorado. This is just a sampling of some of my favorites, all within easy striking distance of Denver. Feel free to share any comments or other suggestions below!