Rick Spitzer has captured remarkable wildlife images in Eagle County and across the globe by being patient | VailDaily.com

Rick Spitzer has captured remarkable wildlife images in Eagle County and across the globe by being patient

Rick Spitzer has spent most of his life photographing wildlife. We're lucky to have these images.
Rick Spitzer/Daily archive photo

Regular Vail Daily readers have surely seen Rick Spitzer’s nature photography. But getting those images has taken a lifetime of passion.

Spitzer’s life watching nature began in his hometown of Greeley, where the family would often pack a picnic and drive to Rocky Mountain National Park or other parts of the state’s Eastern Slope mountains.

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Rick Spitzer’s wildlife photos are frequently featured in the Vail Daily. Spitzer has also photographed and written a couple of books.
“Birds Around My House” features photos of every species that’s paid a visit to the feeders outside Spitzer’s home.
“Colorado Mountain Passes” is a look at “The state’s most accessible high country roadways.”

“We’d park and watch the elk in the rut,” he said “You can’t do that anymore. There’s no place to park.”

After college, Spitzer took a job teaching biology in Colorado Springs. Over 15 summers, he was a supervisory park ranger naturalist at Rocky Mountain, involved in various research projects, many of which required getting up close and personal with the wildlife.

One night in a local bar, one patron bet other customers he’d been closer to a bear than anyone else in the place when an animal crossed the road in front of his car.

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These river otters were spotted on the Colorado River in northern Eagle County. It takes time and patience to learn where to find the wide variety of wildlife in the county.
Rick Spitzer/Daily archive photo

“I told him I’d removed a bear’s molar behind his canine tooth,” Spitzer said. “I was watching (wildlife) from a foot away,” he added.

It was when he was at the national park that he first started photographing wildlife and selling the pictures. Demand waned when people started buying their own cameras capable of more than family snapshots.

Over his education career in Colorado Springs, Spitzer parlayed his experience with the school’s first computer into becoming the school’s technology director.

That led to a 2001 job offer from Eagle County Schools, where Spitzer was the district’s technology director until his retirement in 2006.

Our wildlife variety

Since then, Spitzer has spent a lot of time photographing wildlife across the Rocky Mountains, with a big focus on Eagle County, of course. Spitzer has also worked to educate people about living in a place where the animals were the first residents.

There’s a “huge variety” of wildlife in Eagle County, due in large part to the dramatic changes in elevation and topography, from high Alpine peaks to high desert to virtual foothills.  

That wildlife is there for anyone to see, but a lot of people don’t notice.

An osprey catches a fish at the Gypsum ponds in Gypsum.
Rick Spitzer/Daily archive photo

“I’ve had people say to me they’ve never seen a bighorn (sheep),” Spitzer said. That’s despite the winter presence of the East Vail herd on the north side of Interstate 70, and the presence of a smaller group on the north side of the interstate just west of Gypsum. Those on the Colorado River Road will often spot bighorn by the church at Burns.

Spitzer once photographed a doe and two fawns near the end of Metcalf Road in Avon. A number of people drove right by without noticing.

“It’s a matter of knowing where to look for what kind of critters,” he said. “You aren’t going to look for moose on the (high alpine) tundra.”

Being a good lookout also requires looking at something besides the road.

Slow down, or stop

“If you’re driving the backcountry roads, I’ll drive 10 or 15 mph below the speed limit,” he said.

It’s important sometimes to simply stop and observe. Something may appear. If you spot a bald eagle, try to find where it lands on a nest. That spot will usually result in good photos.

Spitzer said he knows of at least 11 eagle nests in the county, with five between Edwards and Dotsero.

Spitzer will go back to watch nests once a week or so, and over the years has followed birds’ lives from dark-headed juveniles to white-capped adults.

A patient observer can also spot beavers, and close to where humans live. There are some animals along the Eagle River a bit to the east of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District wastewater treatment plant.

The county, along with the rest of the state, has also seen a big jump in populations of wild turkeys.

In a time when most of us have at least a decent camera in our pockets, you’d think it would be easy to get a good shot of an animal. But phones are fairly limited in their range. Even a good phone camera won’t get a good shot of an Eagle close to the Colorado River from the shoulder of the road.

There’s a solution that doesn’t involve buying an expensive camera and gear.

Spitzer said holding a phone up to a tripod-mounted spotting scope or set of binoculars can give surprisingly good results.

“The big thing is keeping it stable,” he said.

For those who want to start watching local wildlife, Spitzer said it’s a good idea to spread the word.

“I get calls all the time about (animal locations),” he said. Make yourself known as someone who does that, and people will call.”

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