Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Road Trip - Part One - Truckee to Salt Lake City

I am just back from a two week road trip with my husband which took us through five states...California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

This was not a photography oriented trip, so I was not up at dawn to catch the rising sun or seeking out the bests spots to photograph a colorful sunset or wildlife.

It was a time to explore new places, connect with old friends and share new experiences.  I did however have a camera and a couple of lenses on hand should anything interesting present itself and my iPhone to record short video clips.

Our journey began by heading to Truckee, California where we spent the night. En route we stopped at Taylors in Loomis, known for offering over 300 varieties of milkshakes!

We arrived in time to get a walk in around beautiful Donner Lake which has a really nice trail with multiple access points to the lake.  Here we watched what we thought were chipmunks gathering dry sticks and leaves, which they would carry in their mouth and transport to their burrows in preparation for the approaching winter when they hibernate.  How cute they were and it was only later that I learned they were in fact Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels. Slightly larger than a chipmunk and without the stripes on the face.

Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis)

They seemed very accustomed to people, which is not surprising since this is a popular recreational area and I was able to get pretty close to one in particular, while it was eating what appeared to be the remnants of a potato chip.  Cute little critter!

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) 

We also saw a large number of Common Mergansers in the lake, congregating on a rock near the shoreline where they were preening their feathers.  I slowly made my way out to where they were via a sand spit and fired off a few images.

Common Mergansers (Mergus Merganser)

The next morning we headed to Salt Lake City driving across the entire state of Nevada.  This was to be the longest leg of our trip as far as driving time and it took us over eight hours to reach our destination.  I assumed the Nevada landscape was going to be flat, endless and nondescript, but in fact I found it to be quite beautiful, even as we made our way through driving rain.

In Salt Lake City we overnighted in the hip "9th & 9th" neighborhood which has a really nice selection of restaurants including the "East Liberty Tap House" where we enjoyed delicious smoked trout tacos and really good craft brews.

Day three began with a brief visit to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, about an hour drive north of SLC depending on traffic.  This is not the optimal time of year to visit the refuge, but I figured since we were in the area, there was no harm in checking it out for future reference.

Established in 1928, the Refuge lies on the eastern fringe of the Pacific Flyway and the western fringe of the Central Flyway.  It is associated with the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which provides critical habitat for migrating birds.  During the spring and fall migrations, vast numbers of water bird species, especially shorebirds migrate through the Refuge.  In the fall in particular, up to 500,000 migrating ducks and geese concentrate on the Refuge marshes with tundra swans beginning to arrive in mid-October.  The scenery was really quite spectacular and I could only imagine the scene before me when thousands of birds are in residence.  Definitely a good reason to return here!

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Since I only had about an hour or so to spend, I took the 12 mile auto tour which meanders through the Refuge  The start of the route is accessible about 12 miles west from the visitor center, so in all, a 36 mile drive from the visitor center and back.

The first part of the route was very dry and riddled with mosquitos, so any attempt to roll down my windows or even get out of the car resulted in a mass attack.  The only way to get them out of the car was to roll down all the windows, drive fast and hopefully blow them out!  It seemed to work pretty well.

Birds I initially encountered included a Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds, three Sandhill Cranes in flight and a Chukar, which is similar to a partridge. A native of southern Eurasia, the Chukar was introduced to North America as a game bird and the males are really beautiful. This was my first sighting of this bird and only guessing what it was after seeing a large sign along the highway advertising the upcoming annual Chukar tournament.  It was unsurprisingly skittish and vanished into the scrub very quickly.

As I made my way around the Refuge, it was only on the final stretch that I came across larger areas of open water and wading birds, but many were far in the distance.  Here there were White-faced Ibis, American White Pelicans and American Avocets, large numbers of Swallows and various ducks, but the light at this point was overhead and harsh and we needed to get back on the road for the next leg of our trip to Laramie, Wyoming.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Bird Cliffs of Bear Island

Approaching Bear Island

Bear Island (Norwegian: Bjørnøya) is the southernmost island of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago and was one of my favorite locations to visit while in the arctic.  As we approached the island, we had beautiful blue skies, but this quickly changed as the sky turned to grey and we ventured out in zodiacs on choppy seas to explore the rugged coastline. 

So you may wonder why the island is called Bear Island? Bear Island was discovered by the Dutch explorers Willem Barents and Jacob van Heemskerk on June 10th, 1596.  It was aptly named after a polar bear that was seen swimming nearby.  Although polar bears are known to occasionally visit the island by way of drifting pack ice, it is better known for its incredible rock formations and bird colonies.

The polar bears and the birds are not alone. Arctic foxes roam the island, with plenty of eggs on themenu especially in summer!  Fish sustains the many birds, but also the marine life such as white-beaked dolphins, minke whales, ringed seals, harp seals, hooded seals. Walruses used to be common, but are now scarcer around the island.

Dramatic Cliffs and Colonies of Nesting Birds

During the nesting season, an estimated one million sea birds occupy the cliffs making the site one of the largest sea bird colonies in the northern hemisphere. Some of these cliffs shoot 400m up, straight out of the cold water. The most common bird on the island is the Guillemot, but it is also home to Kittiwakes and Puffins.

Trying to photograph the landscape and the birds in a bobbing zodiac was tough to say the least, the key being to just fire off a few bursts as soon as I locked focus and hope for the best.  Light was also tough, so using high ISO's was a necessity in order to maintain a high shutter speed.  Therefore birds in flight was near impossible and I had to make do with sporadic moments where groups of birds were sitting on rocks with enough separation from the background to make for a semi-decent image. Here is a short video clip giving you an idea as to the conditions!

The common guillemot is one of the most abundant seabirds in temperate and colder parts of the northern hemisphere, with very large populations in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and adjacent areas of the Arctic Ocean. In the northeast Atlantic its range extends from Portugal in the south to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the north and includes the Baltic. Bear Island (Bjørnøya) is the most important breeding area for the common guillemot in Svalbard and the entire Barents Sea.

Common Guillemots/Murres

The common guillemot is extremely gregarious and colonial breeding is the norm. The colonies can contain many tens of thousands of individuals. Common guillemots nest exclusively in steep cliffs, either on narrow ledges or platforms. Breeding success is highest where birds breed at high density or where sites are protected from predators. The Arctic fox, glaucous gull and great black-backed gull are important predators of eggs, chicks and adult birds. Some individuals, the so-called ”bridled” morph, have a white ring around the eye and a white stripe extending from the eye backwards towards the neck.

Bear Island is one of the few places in the Arctic protected as a nature reserve and the island is also listed under the Ramsar convention. The protected area extends 12 nautical miles (around 22km) out from the coast.

Zodiac approaches cargo ship "Petrozavodsk"

In 2009 the cargo ship Petrozavodsk ran aground beneath the majestic bird cliffs. Toxic chemicals and fuel was pumped from the ship, but further recovery was abandoned due to safety concerns around rockslides. It now lies abandoned, corroding under the crashing waves.  Although the sight of the ship was a colorful point of interest, it was also a reminder of how detrimental chemical spills can be, especially in such, fragile, pristine locations such as this.

Cargo Ship "Petrozavodsk"

Located 74° North in the Barents Sea, the island both experiences polar night and midnight sun, when the sun is below or above the horizon for a full 24 hours. The polar night lasts from 8 November to 3 February. Between 2 May to 11 August, the sun never sets. The island also host an exclusive nude dipping club. Among the members are several high ranking Norwegian politicians!

By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, FAL

Today there are nine human inhabitants. The island hosts a meteorological station providing fresh weather forecasts, providing data for safe navigation. Besides the meteorologists a couple of biologists study island unique animals and the flora.

 Bear Island has an amazing diversity of life in very harsh Arctic conditions. But this ecosystem is very fragile. Oil drilling in the Arctic is dangerous. It puts wildlife under tremendous threat and the oil recovered will contribute to rising global temperatures which are already impacting millions of lives around the world. Even on Bear Island it is getting warmer, and the temperature has risen in these high latitudes more than on the globe in general.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Close Encounter

As my husband and I headed off this morning for an energetic hike, we stumbled upon a majestic Red-tailed Hawk perched nonchalantly on a wooden post.

The area this occurred is called The Dish, a beautiful paved trail next to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. It gets it's name from a massive radiotelescope that is still in use.

The trail is circular and provides stunning 360 degree views of the San Francisco Bay area. The trail itself is asphalt and comprises of challenging hills  regardless of the direction you take upon entering one of the three access gates.

It was only shortly after entering one of these gates we almost walked right by the bird, as it was very still and blended into the surrounding landscape.  Naturally we both stopped to just enjoy such a beautiful sight.  It seemed to not be in the least bit bothered by our presence, so I took a short video clip before we headed off on our hike.

An hour later we returned and I wondered what the odds were of seeing the same bird again.  Well, low and behold, there it was, this time perched on another wooden post.  So I slowly approached and took a second short video before it decided it had had enough attention and took flight.

Moments like this make me realize just how much wildlife we have in an area that is so dense with people and just how important it is to ensure there are places for these creatures to go about their lives and thrive.  The Dish is a fabulous area to spot a variety of hawks, white-tailed kites and even golden eagles if you are lucky!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Tale of Two Foxes

Gray Fox Kits Interacting

Early this morning while at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, California, I came upon three young grey foxes approaching me without any sign of fear.  I had heard about the foxes here and the issue with people feeding them, slowly habituating them to humans and a dependence on handouts rather than hunting for themselves.

Why people are finding it necessary to feed them is not clear, whether they think they look malnourished, or even to entice them in order to take photographs, it is creating a problem, both for the foxes themselves and for people or children who might think it is okay to approach and possibly pet them.  As the foxes approached me a couple of people walked by with trash in their hands from snacks being fed to the foxes.  They said that is is an issue and in the past there has been signage, a person posted in the area and they even mentioned they have been relocated.  Well I think it is time to think about that again, because these three little foxes are going to have a hard time fending for themselves if this continues.

Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are small, secretive canines, and the only member of the family that can climb trees. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some
reddish fur, but gray foxes are noticeably shorter-legged and have a black-tipped tail, instead of white. Gray foxes are found in habitat with a combination of forest and brushy woodland.  Like red foxes, they also live near farmlands bordered by woods and have adapted to living in close proximity to humans. They need to live near water, choosing habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens.

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)

Gray foxes have several predators, most notably coyotes and bobcats, but great horned owls, golden eagles and cougars also prey upon them.  They are territorial among themselves, yet they may "time share" habitat with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of a mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.  They are not currently threatened as a species, but habitat loss as with so much wildlife requires them to adapt to living closer to human activity they would normally avoid.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them.  It normally is "rare" to catch a glimpse of a gray fox as they are "usually" on out from dusk until dawn.  They explore at a trotting pace, often through dense cover, pausing only to listen for prey or predators.  Keen vision, hearing, and sense of small help them hunt for a variety of birds, rodents, reptiles and invertebrates.  By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed protectors.  It is unfortunate the three foxes I encountered are more than likely not hunting as they should be.

Sometimes a gray fox will rest on a high branch or in the crotch of a tree.  To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs.  Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch.  Coming down is a bit trickier...it is either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run!

I left the gray foxes and made my way around the park and the bay view trail and it is here I encountered a red fox pointed out to me by another photographer.  This fox looked very healthy and was hunting as it should be.  It was also not too concerned by our presence, but was keeping it's distance and going about it's natural behavior of spraying and marking it's territory, sniffing around and poking it's head down holes in search of rodents.  The other photographer moved on and I decided to stick around and slowly follow the fox.  I managed to get a few images, before it headed higher up into the hills and out of view.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) have been introduced into California by people, so unlike the gray fox, they are not considered native and a threat to native populations of birds and other prey.  As much as it is beautiful to see this animal, one must also consider the impact of its presence in an area such as Coyote Hills and the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge.

Though it looks similar, it should not be confused with the native Sierra Nevada red fox, a threatened species found only in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.  Non-native red foxes were introduced decades ago for fox farming and fur farming.  Over time, these foxes escaped or were released.  These adaptable mammals have easily adjusted to coastal and valley ecosystems alike, where they actively prey on rodents, rabbits, reptiles, shorebirds, waterfowl, and other ground-nesting species.  Some species are at greater risk because they have not developed effective defenses against this newcomer.  Red foxes are not the only predators to capture and consume these imperiled species, but their predation is significant, their numbers are growing, and their range is expanding.

Red Fox
Red Fox watching a burrow

When food is abundant, red foxes are prolific, breeding during their first year of life and raising litters of four to seven pups annually.  Pups are born in the late winter or early spring - in concert with the birth of birds, small mammals, and other prey species.  They travel across roads, through culverts, and along flood control channels to hunt.  They build dens in golf courses, at parks, and along creek banks, even along the shoulders of busy freeways.

Many wild foxes live for several years.  As populations swell, young foxes disperse, often forming new territories many miles from their birth place.  This natural dispersal, supplemented by foxes illegally relocated by people, has significantly extended the range of these beautiful non-natives.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

This led me to think about New Zealand and the introduction of stoats in the 1880's to control the population of rabbits and hares.  They are now considered "public enemy number one" to New Zealand's bird population.  You can read more about it here.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Saving the Western Snowy Plover

Wildlife conservation is not just something happening overseas.  We hear about elephants, rhinos, sharks and other animals that are in dire need of our help in order to survive in this world and it is crucial that we do all we can.

It is however also needed right in our own back yards and it is just as important to me to get involved one way or another, whether that is through volunteer work or my photography. One organization I have come to know is Point Blue Conservation Science, based in Petaluma, California and avian ecologist, Carleton Eyster whose expertise and efforts for the past 20 years or so,  lie in saving the western snowy plover.

Carleton Eyster with Point Blue Conservation Science
Carleton Eyster monitors Snowy Plover population at Pajaro Dunes, CA

The western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosusi) is a small federally threatened shorebird approximately the size of a sparrow.  During the breeding season, March through September, plovers can be found nesting along shores, peninsulas, offshore islands, bays, estuaries and rivers along the pacific coast.  Their nests are very difficult to spot as you can see in the above image, which is good as far as camouflage, but also makes them easily over looked and potentially stepped on or disturbed.

I recently had the opportunity to accompany Carleton on a visit to Pajaro Dunes to check on the nesting population and watch him band a day old chick.  The process of banding the chicks which are only about 1" in length requires very steady, skillful hands.  Four color coded bands are carefully put around their legs, with each combination of colors unique to the bird.  Sometimes color combinations are recycled if the previous wearer is considered dead. These are then heat sealed, in addition to being taped in matching colors for strength and color fastness.  Plover legs don't grow appreciatively in diameter, so adult bands can be put on the chicks. These bands can last the life of the bird which can be up to ten years.

Their nests consist of a shallow scrape or depression and usually contain three eggs.  These are camouflaged to look like sand and are barely visible, even to the most well-trained eye.  Plovers will use almost anything they can find on the beach to make their nests, including kelp, driftwood, shells, rocks or even in human footprints.  Both sexes incubate the eggs, with the female tending to incubate during the day and the male at night.

Snowy Plover Chick & Egg 
The first chick hatched remains in or near the nest until the other eggs, or at least the second egg has hatched.  The adult plover, while incubating the eggs, also broods the first chick. The non-incubating adult may also brood the first-born chick a short distance from the nest.

If the third egg of a clutch is 24-48 hours behind the others in hatching, it may be deserted.  Plover chicks are "precocial" leaving the nest within hours of hatching in search of food.  They are not able to fly for approximately 4 week; fledging requires 28 - 33 days.

Broods rarely remain in the nesting area until fledging and may travel along the beach as far as 4 miles from their natal area. Adult plovers do not feed their chicks, but lead them to suitable foraging areas.  Plovers are primarily visual foragers, using the run-stop-peck method of feeding.  They forage on invertebrates in the wet sand and amongst surf-cast kelp within the intertidal zone, in dry, sandy areas above the high tide, on salt pans and along the edges of salt marshes, salt ponds and lagoons.

They have natural predators such as falcons, owls, raccoons and coyotes.  There are also predators that humans have introduced whose populations they have helped 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 kits and bring their dogs to beaches where the western snowy plover both lives and breeds.  All of these activities can frighten or harm plovers during their breeding season.

Carleton Eyster banding plover chick
Carlton Eyster banding Snowy Plover chick
Energy is very important to this small bird.  Every time humans, dogs, or other predators cause the birds to take flight or run away, they look precious energy that is needed to maintain their nests.

Adults use distraction displays to lure predators and people away from chicks.  They will signal the chicks to crouch with calls as another way to protect them.  They may also lead chicks, especially larger ones away from predators.  More frequently however, when a plover parent is disturbed, it will abandon its nest, which increases the chance of a predator finding the eggs, sand blowing over and covering the nest, or the eggs getting cold.  This can decrease the number of chicks that hatch in a particular year.  Even a kite flying overhead looks like a predator to a plover and if flown over a nesting area, can keep an adult off the nest for long periods of time.

Most chick mortality occurs within 6 days after hatching. Females generally leave their mates and broods by the sixth day and thereafter the chicks are typically accompanied only by the male.  While males rear broods, females obtain new mates an initiate new nests and the cycle begins again.  The more chicks they have, the higher the odds of survival into adulthood.

There are many key things WE can do to help save the plover from extinction.  Allowing these small, beautiful birds to remain in their breeding areas undisturbed throughout the breeding season is most important.  There is plenty of space for people to recreate on beaches AND leave room for the plovers to nest.  The idea is to "Share the Shore", meaning having fun while also protecting our natural environment at the same time.  Simply paying attention to signage and NOT going beyond roped off areas on pacific coast beaches can make a BIG difference in their survival.  Plovers can be very difficult to spot since they nestle in small indentations in the sand, so it is very easy to "stumble" on them without realizing they area right at your feet.

Roped off area with signage at Pajaro Dunes, CA

We are privileged to be able to be stewards of the beach, its habitat and its occupants, including the western snowy plover, so let's protect our beaches and the plants and animals that use them.  Social media has become and amazing way to get the work out about important issues, so please share this story with your friends and family.  Remember...when a species goes extinct, it is gone forever!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pole to Pole!

Jacqueline Deely @ Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island 2013
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island

A couple of years ago I visited Antarctica as a passenger with Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris.  The month long journey out of Ushuaia, Argentina included The Falklands, South Georgia Island and the Antarctic continent, followed by a week long tour of Patagonia.  This was by no means cheap and I had saved up for quite some time to cover the cost of such an adventure. I had such an incredible experience and the thought of never returning was something I just could not imagine.  I had to get back somehow knowing it would have to be through a far less costly means.  I was still working for a high tech company in Silicon Valley at the time, but it my goal was to eventually leave the corporate world for good.  In October 2014 I was conveniently laid off and it was at this point in time I decided to finally pursue my dream of a career in wildlife photography.

MS Expedition maneuvers through ice pack

So here I am back home after an incredible month in the Arctic on board the MS Expedition as "photographer in residence" with G Adventures, an adventure tour company based in Toronto, Canada. I began my adventure in Edinburgh, Scotland, visiting Shetland, the coast of Norway, crossing the Arctic circle all the way up to the archipelago of Svalbard and beyond as far as 82 degrees north!

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
I loved my life on board the ship, the amazing people I met and worked with and the incredible places I visited, not to mention the wildlife!  It was probably one of the most challenging things I have done in addition to being one of the most rewarding and I can't wait to do it all over again and guess what?  I will be returning to Antarctica and the Arctic in 2017!

My mother worked as a "stewardess" on cruise ships back in the 50's traveling to exotic locations and I can only think that it is something I was also destined to do.  Travel and the need to explore and experience as much as I can are somehow deeply rooted in my bones and I intend to exploit that need for as long as I physically can.

Stay tuned for stories from the arctic...

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Projecto Titi - Colombia

In February, 2016 I was afforded the opportunity to visit Projecto Titi in Colombia.  This came about through my involvement with the Wildlife Conservation Network whom I have been a volunteer with for several years. Myself and three fellow volunteers were incredibly excited to not only visit this beautiful part of the world, but to have the chance to actually see the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin in the wild!

The tiny cotton-top tamarin weighs less than a pound and is name appropriately named for the shock of white hair on the top of its head.  The monkeys, nicknamed the cutest in South America, entertain researchers with their endless antics which we would ultimately see for ourselves.

Jefe Parrish & Rosamira Guillen
We took a red-eye flight out of San Francisco on Copa Airlines, connecting in Panama and arrived in Cartagena the following afternoon. Projecto Titi had arranged three jam packed days for us covering a wide range of activities so we could see and experience the full scope of their operation.

The plan for our first morning was a trip to El Ceibal, Santa Catalina to meet with Rosamira Guillen, Executive Director of Projecto Titi and her team whom would take us out into the forest to potentially see the cotton-top tamarins in their native habitat. We were picked up at 6:30am joining WCN's VP of Conservation, Jefe Parrish and his daughter who were also joining our group.

El Ceibal is one of the protected study sites where field research is being conducted by Projecto Titi.
Because of their small size, cotton-top tamarins are very difficult to locate and and follow in the wild.
However, Projecto Titi has developed a unique technique where animals are captured once a year, anesthetized and marked on various body parts with a bright color using hair dye. This allows for identification through dense vegetation and lasts for up to 6 months of exposure.  The dominant male in each group is also fitted with a radio transmitter in a backpack harness in order to locate the animals with telemetry.

Cotton-top Tamarin

Although still relatively early in the day, the heat and humidity was intense as we set out into the forest and we stopped en route to view various birds including beautiful scarlet macaws.  The landscape was very dry as Colombia is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history. As we made our way in deeper, a receiver was used to help locate the tamarins.  It did not take long however with the experience of our Projecti Titi guide to locate them and we were soon met with several curious onlookers.

I cannot describe the feeling of seeing an animal that is so endangered in its natural habitat in the only place on the planet where it can be found. We were all in absolute awe to say the least. Having only seen them in pictures could not convey just how small they were and how incredibly cute!

Cotton-top Tamarin
Cotton-top tamarins are among the most endangered primates in the world and only found in northwestern Colombia.  The species was declared endangered in 1973 following the exportation of 20,000 - 40,000 tamarins to the United States for use in biomedical research. I find it very hard to comprehend how a creature so beautiful and so limited in its range could have been plucked from its home and subjected to such horrors.  Thankfully this is no longer the case, but now the tamarin faces other challenges to its survival and once again at our hands.

The greatest threat today is deforestation for agriculture, fuel, and housing in addition to collection for the local pet trade in Colombia. Many Colombians who live near the cotton-top's forest home do not know that these monkeys - known locally as "titis" - are endangered.

Projecto Titi aims to change this by providing information about the cotton-top alongside employment opportunities that enable locals to protect the forest and its monkeys.

On our way out of the forest, we encountered other animals way up high in the canopy including a howler monkey with her baby and a sloth hanging upside down sleeping.  Upon my return home, I did a search for sloths in Colombia and learned that they are one of most highly trafficked animals in the illegal pet trade, many of which end up in the USA as pets. Many do not survive outside the rainforest, because of their complicated diet of about 40 different plant species.

More to follow...