DANCES WITH MOUNTAIN GOATS
I have to confess to a long-standing affection for mountain goats. Back in the day, when I was more actively backpacking & climbing, I’d often take a lunch break (and sometimes a little nap) after particularly grueling uphill sections above tree-line in the Colorado Rockies. It was not uncommon to find myself joined by small groups of mountain goats during those respites. They had little fear of humans; the adults would quietly graze around me and the kids would play, sometimes almost stepping on me, actually standing on my pack, and at times running into me. Those are fond memories.
I suppose it’s natural that with a new (or rather re-newed) avocation of photography, usually wildlife, that I’m drawn back to mountain goats. I usually dread the start of summer – the heat, the bugs, the throngs of people flooding my favorite outdoor areas – but summer is also the time I get to visit my alpine critters and re-establish connections made every summer.
BIOLOGY & HABITAT
You can find mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) in the western mountain ranges of North America. They’re primarily an alpine and sub-alpine species, most often found above tree-line in the Summer, and below tree-line (sometimes at sea-level for coastal goats in the Cascades) when there is no food available at higher elevations during other seasons.
The mountain goat is amazingly well adapted to its environment. Their hooves are separated by an interdigital cleft that allows the hooves to vary its shape adapting to rocky terrain, and have a soft but grippy pad that extends beyond the hard, cornified hoof. As Junior Johnson says, that gives them plenty of “gription,” allowing them to climbs rocky & snowy slopes in excess of 60 degrees. They have well-developed dewclaws on the back of each foot that also prevents slipping. Mountain goats can frequently be seen running up or down steep slopes, using tiny outcroppings to maneuver.
It’s sometimes tough to spot mountain goats – their white coat blends in well with snowy terrain. And not only does it blend well, it’s amazingly protective. It’s estimated that it can keep them warm in temps as low as -50F (-46C) in winds as strong as 100mph (161kph). By the time late Spring/early Summer rolls around, their thick coats are looking a bit dull and ratty; on the positive side, the color of their coat at this time is around 18% gray, making accurate exposures a snap. Their coats shed through Summer, and close to the end of Summer, most of the major shedding is over and they have fresh, white coats.
Males (Billies) associate with females only during the mating season, usually December to January, and otherwise fall into bachelor groups. The Females (Nannies) also group together for safety and rearing the young (Kids). Kids are usually born late May to mid-June. Yearlings usually remain with the mother at least until their second year – at that point, Billies will usually joining a bachelor group and Nannies may remain in the same family group.
Nannies can be very competitive for food resources. This results in frequent display and posturing, usually with ears lowered and head pushed forward showing off their horns – this kind of display is usually sufficient to prevent actual aggression. Billies can be aggressive during breeding season, with injuries and even death resulting from aggressive behavior.
Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats share the same habitat and diet, and interact passively with each other most of the time. Mountain Goat kids and Bighorn lambs sometimes play together. Whenever there is any dispute between the two species, Bighorns are quick to get out of the way of the more aggressive Mountain Goats. I’ve seen two young Kids (less than a year old) chase an adult Bighorn away from a mineral lick.
Mountain Goats are herbivores, with a diet of grasses and alpine plans, and even lichen (goats like licking lichen . . .). They can have 6-7 feeding & resting cycles in the course of a day, with peaks in the early morning and late afternoon during Summers. I can find Mountain Goats near the summit of Mt Evans between 8 and 10am most Summer mornings. Because alpine plants are not rich in minerals, Mountain Goats (and Bighorns, to a lesser extent) must supplement their diets by licking salts & minerals from the rocks.
EQUIPMENT & SETTINGS
The Mountain Goats on Mt Evans are used to people, and generally don’t see us as a threat. It’s possible to be very close to goats as they graze. Despite their relaxed behavior, do not try to pet one – they are wild animals. Nannies with Kids will react very aggressively to protect their young – you do not want to be between a bleating Kid and its mother. The Kids are very curious and don’t seem to mind approaching people to check them out, but they can also be easily spooked by sudden movements or loud speech. Momma doesn’t like it when they get spooked.
My default wildlife lens is a 300mm f/2.8. Most of the time, that’s plenty of focal length, and at times, too much focal length. I carry a second body with a 24-70mm f/2.8 for those close shots. I see other photographers with different gear – most commonly a 70-200mm f/2.8, usually handheld, and 600mm f/4 on a big tripod. The 600mm is too much lens most of the time. The 70-200mm is a good compromise and probably the most versatile lens.
I always use a tripod. It slows be down a little, but also provides much sharper photos and gives me an opportunity to be a little more mindful in my compositions. With fingers numb from the cold & wind, it keeps me from fumbling and possibly dropping my gear, too.
I generally shoot wide open, with the widest aperture I have available to me. Between the bright sun, snowy reflections, and wide apertures, I can get fast shutter speeds, which helps freeze action. Fast enough so that fur caught on the tip of a horn, blowing in a strong wind, is frozen in time, no blurring. With lots of snow at elevation, I usually crank down exposure to -1EV (give or take 1/3 stop) to prevent blown highlights. The snow also acts like a giant reflector, so no worries about shadows most of the time. On bright days without clouds, I use a polarizer. Check the Histogram for blinkies indicating you’ve blown out highlights.
Keep in mind, even in the Summer, it’s cold at 14,000ft. Long pants, warm jackets, gloves and hats are mandatory. It doesn’t matter how great the photographic opportunities are if you’re cold and miserable and bail after five minutes. Chemical hand warmers can be a lifesaver. Drink lots of water. The better hydrated you are, the better you’ll be able to fight off altitude sickness. I down at least a liter on the way up, and have another liter while I’m on top, then another liter on the drive back home.
Don’t plan on editing your photos the same day you’re at altitude. Unless you’re used to the altitude, you’ll probably be too loopy to do a good job of editing your photos. Take a nap instead, and edit your photos the next day.
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