Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Saving the Western Snowy Plover

As the 2015 snowy plover breeding season comes to an end, I wanted to share an article I wrote for "Focusing on Wildlife" on the plight of the beautiful western snowy plover.  You can read more here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mud Stomping at Elkhorn Slough

This past weekend I took part in a Mud Stomping event at Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing.  The event was organized by Point Blue Conservation Science in collaboration with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and California Fish and Wildlife.

The goal of the event was to create shallow depressions on the mud flats at Elkhorn Slough for Snowy Plovers to nest and lay their eggs.  In addition to the depressions, oyster shells were scattered around to provide camouflage, as well as provide cover for the plover chicks to hide if needed.  These threatened birds are up against many obstacles to their survival, particularly predators such as raptors, gulls, foxes, dogs and humans.

Here is a short video clip of our morning out on the slough.

2015 Elkhorn Slough Annual Mud Stomp

Snowy Plovers are very difficult to spot, so please pay close attention to where you are walking while visiting the slough and beaches along the coast.  Also, please do not take your dog off-leash in areas that indicate not to!  The signage is there for a very good reason and during breeding season, these birds and other nesting birds and animals are highly vulnerable and easily disturbed.  Your behavior can have a major impact on their survival!

I have provided more information and links on my website here.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

High Wire Walkers at Yosemite Falls!

After a wonderful three days spent at Yosemite National Park, I stopped at Yosemite Falls on the way out of the park and encountered two high wire walkers across the upper falls!  I quickly made my way back to my car and grabbed my 500mm lens and 1:4 teleconverter.  I rested my lens on the bough of a tree in the parking lot and shot off several images of the walkers making their way across the upper falls. Thankfully they were both tethered to the line, as they did fall off a few times!

High Wire Walker at Upper Yosemite Falls
Hire Wire Walker at Upper Yosemite Falls

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Wings & Wild Things" Photography Exhibit & Reception

"Wings & Wild Things" Photography Exhibit & Reception

I am pleased to announce my first large scale solo exhibit hosted by Ameriprise Financial, in downtown San Jose, California.  There will be an evening of art and wine at the reception on Friday, November 7th from 6pm - 9pm.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Antarctic Adventure - Falkland Islands - New Island (Part II)

New Island is one of the finest wildlife areas in the Falklands. This is largely because of the variety and density of bird life which lives there. Thirty nine species of bird regularly breed on New Island. More than two million seabirds inhabit its shores and surrounding smaller islands, with large numbers of breeding Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, and more than 13,000 pairs of breeding Black-browed Albatross.

The importance of New Island as a breeding ground, along with a number of other islands in this part of the archipelago can be attributed to the Falkland Current. A main stream of this current flows to the west side of New Island, creating one of the richest marine resources and feeding grounds for wildlife to be found around the Falkland Islands.

Although New Island's coastal marine habitats are in a pristine state, terrestrial habitats on the island have suffered from past depredations caused by a multitude of man's interference: stock grazing (ca. 1860 - 1973), burning of native vegetation, the whaling industry (based on New Island between 1908 and 1916), sealing and penguin oiling (late 1800's), egging (taking of wild penguin and albatross eggs) and the introduction of non-native species such as cats and pigs, which were allowed to run wild.

Sheep and cattle were completely removed from the Southern half of New Island in 1978, but farming continued on the Northern half of the property for approximately 26 years, albeit significantly reduced between 1986 and 2004. The Northern property was eventually purchased by the New Island Conservation Trust in 2006 by which time no sheep remained on the Northern property. National Nature Reserve status means that the island is now entirely free of livestock.

Second Landing Site @ New Island

Our second landing spot in the afternoon involved a hike of just under a mile to another amazing colony of Black-browed Albatross, Imperial Shags and Rockhopper Penguins. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day, there was once again a strong, cold wind (perfect for the Albatrosses), so I once again ditched the tripod, sat on a rock and handheld or balanced my lenses on my knee for stability. Here, I experienced the thrill of Black-browed Albatrosses gliding by so close that I could see right into their eyes!

Bird Colony @ New Island

Albatross are known to be amongst some of the longest-lived birds and the Black-browed can continue to breed up to an age of 35 years. Adults become mature at seven years old and, having found a mate, will pair for life. Seeing these birds up close and personal really touched me, especially watching a courting pair and their gentle interaction with one another. But I think it is their beautiful, expressive eyes that captivated me the most.  If there was one species on this entire trip I would love to return to and photograph, it would be these birds.

Courting Black-browed Albatrosses

But these magnificent birds are in critical danger with Albatrosses now listed as the most threatened bird family in the world.  Albatrosses are being killed at an alarming rate by longline fisheries for species such as toothfish (chilean sea bass), tuna and swordfish.  As the baited hooks enter the water, the albatrosses see a free meal, swoop down, seize the bait and are hooked.  They are dragged under and drowned.  The scale of deaths are enormous with 100,000 albatrosses drowned by fishing operations worldwide. Since albatrosses are slow breeders, taking several years to start nesting and only produce one chick or less every year, these losses cannot be sustained. Several organizations are working hard to eliminate the high mortality rate including The Foundation for Antarctic Research.

Another species commonly nesting with Black-browed albatross is the Imperial Shag (Cormorant). These birds build nests, which are often similar to those of the Black-browed albatross. Unlike albatross, which return and use the same nest year after year, cormorants often move nesting sites, leaving large numbers of old nests in place.

Imperial Shag with Nesting Material

Last, but not least were the endearing Southern Rockhopper Penguins with many busy tending their young.  These birds breed in large colonies that may comprise over a hundred thousand nests. Breeding pairs are monogamous, and usually return to the same nest every year. Egg-laying commences around November, with the female usually producing a clutch of two eggs of unequal size. Although in general only the chick from the larger egg survives to maturity, populations on the Falkland Islands frequently succeed in raising both.

Southern Rockhopper Penguin & Chick

Incubation takes around 33 days, with both adult birds taking it in turns to sit on the eggs for extended periods of time, while the other forages for food. Incubation is aided by a bare patch of skin on the lower abdomen (known as a 'brood patch') that allows greater heat transfer to the egg. Once hatched, the adult male will remain to brood the chick for the first 25 days, while the female regularly brings food back to the nest. After this time, the chick is able to leave the nest, and will congregate with other chicks in small groups known as 'crèches' while the adult birds forage.

It amazed me to see these three species of birds nesting in such close proximity to each other, but makes me think that there must be something beneficial in this?

Next - Steeple Jason

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Antarctic Adventure - The Falkland Islands - New Island (Part I)

After two wonderful days at sea, The Falklands came into view with New Island being our very first experience with encountering wildlife en masse!

The Falkland Islands is a compact group of more than 740 islands situated in the South Atlantic, some 400 miles (483 km) from the South American mainland and 850 miles (1,365 km) north of the Antarctic Circle.  Unfortunately, many people associate these islands with the war in 1982 and not with the incredible scenery and wildlife we were to encounter during the three full days we were to spend here.

Falkland Islands

The total land area is approximately 4,700 square miles (12,000 square km) comprising of mountain ranges and flat plains.  The two main islands are East Falkland and West Falkland with Mount Usborne on East Falkland, the highest peak at 2,312ft (705m).

Geologically the Falklands were once a part of East Africa, and as such have some interesting and unusual landscape features such as stone runs, ‘rivers’ of angular quartzite boulders that ‘flow’ from the hilltops.  The main soil type is peat and natural vegetation is grassland, with some species of heath and dwarf shrubs.  There are no indigenous trees, although cultivated trees do grow.

New Island Landing Site

Our morning zodiac landing was in a beautiful sandy cove.  Here, sat an old rusty ship sitting in turquoise water, amid green hills, white sand and tussock grass. Various birds lined the beach including Upland Geese, Magellanic Oystercatchers and Patagonian Crested Ducks.

Magellanic Oystercatchers

From here, we hiked 1/2 a mile along a grassy, windblown trail to a bird colony perched on the edge of a dramatic cliff landscape.  The colony consisted of Rockhopper Penguins and Imperial (Blue-eyed) Shags. A little further away through thick tussock grass was a colony of Black-browed Albatross.

Trail leading to bird colony

Seeing and hearing so many nesting birds for the first time was unreal! So rather than start shooting right away, I sat and waited for a scene to present itself to me. Looking for open areas and clean backgrounds was tough with so many birds and so much activity. There was also a very strong head wind, so I found it easier at times to secure my lens between my knees while sitting, rather than mount it on my tripod.

Rockhopper Penguin & Imperial Shag Colony

Imperial Shags performed courting rituals while others were busy building nests. I really loved these birds with their intense blue eyes and orange caruncles (knob-like warts that sit above the base of the bill).  Courting involved preening each other, followed by touching bills and staring into each other's eyes.  Really quite beautiful to watch.

Courting Imperial Shags

The imperial shag inhabits rocky coasts and islands surrounded by deep, sub-Antarctic waters, although it typically forages around shallower, inshore areas. During the breeding season this sociable bird forms large colonies, often with penguins or albatrosses, to nest on cliffs and rocky islands.

A strong swimmer and proficient predator of fish, the imperial shag, also known as the imperial cormorant, displays a number of adaptations for underwater hunting.  Like other cormorants, its bones are proportionally heavier than other seabirds, which along with a lack of body fat, reduces the bird's buoyancy on water.  The feet are fully webbed and powerful thrusts of the set-back legs propel the streamlined body through the water in pursuit of its prey.  It has a long, sinuous neck, sealed nostrils, and a sharply hooked bill, which can grip slippery fish.

Imperial Shag

As the imperial shag largely inhabits remote, inhospitable areas and forages around inshore areas, away from deep-sea commercial fisheries, it rarely interacts with humans. Consequently, this species has never been intensively exploited and lacks any significant threats. Climate change could potentially threaten the imperial shag by reducing its prey abundance, while marine pollution and debris could kill some birds. 

Next - New Island (Part II) Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatross!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Antarctic Adventure - Tierra del Fuego & En-route to The Falklands

The morning of our scheduled sailing, we did a tour to beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park.  It was given its name by the first european explorers who saw campfires of the native inhabitants known as the Yaghan or Yamana and in turn named the area "Tierra del Fuego", meaning land of fire in Spanish.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

The park is studded with mountains, lakes and rivers which form deep valleys and is bounded on the west by the Chilean border, on the north by Lago Fagnano, and on the south by the Beagle Channel which forms the shoreline.  Here we visited the "End of the World" viewpoint as we hiked along a trail looking out towards the snow capped Andes.  Spring flowers were in bloom including a beautiful budding Yellow Orchid hidden in the shade among the trees.

Yellow Orchid

We also saw a variety of birds including my first ever sighting of a female Magellanic Woodpecker, identified by the black face with a curly crest and red around the bill.  Year-round residents and endemic to the region, the species has been affected by the reduction of forest cover, having disappeared from a great part of its original geographic range. Seeing this beautiful bird was a very rare treat!

Female Magellanic Woodpecker

Another bird we would see quite a bit off particularly on the Falkland Islands was the Upland Goose which is one of the most conspicuous birds on the island group. The species shown here is known as the lesser "barred" upland goose and found on the mainland.  The wings are boldly patterned black, white and metallic green while the tail is black and the entire undersurface of the body barred black and white. Both on the Falkland Islands and the South American mainland, the upland goose has been persecuted as an agricultural pest that competes with sheep for grazing.  Although hunting and habitat destruction are responsible for a continuing decline on the mainland, the species does remain widespread and abundant.

Male Lesser "Barred" Upland Goose

We returned to Ushuaia in the late afternoon where we boarded the icebreaker "Ortelius", which was to be our home at sea for the next twenty five days.  As we said goodbye to Argentina and made our way out into the Beagle Channel, I felt immense anticipation and excitement that we were now underway.  I was finally fulfilling a lifelong dream!

Expedition Route

Our initial journey would take us east across the continental shelf of South America towards the Falkland Islands, a block of ancient mega continent known as Gondwanaland.  The Falklands or "Islas Malvinas" as they are depicted on Argentinian maps, are most closely related to the rocks found on the east coast of South Africa.  Two hundred and thirty million years ago when Gondwanaland broke apart a sliver of the continental margin of Africa broke away and rotated into place off the coast of Argentina, and is now incorporated on to the edge of the South American plate as the Falkland Islands.

This area can sometimes experience the ferocity of the southern oceans as westerly winds round Cape Horn and blow across the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelf.  The weather forecast however was good, so the next two days would be the perfect opportunity to get some BIF (birds in flight) practice from the deck of the ship.

Southern Giant Petrel

We were to be escorted by a variety of birds I had never seen before including Southern Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels and more than one species of Albatross, to name just a few.

The adventure was just beginning!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Antarctic Adventure - Argentina - Estancia Haberton & Isla Martillo

After arriving in the beautiful coastal town of Ushuaia, the planet’s most southern city, I took a day tour to Estancia Harberton and the penguin colony at Isla Martillo. This would be my very first opportunity to see penguins in the wild!

Scenic stop en-route to Harberton

Harberton is the oldest estancia (farm) in the Argentine sector of Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle Channel.  It’s founder Thomas Bridges, was an orphan from England whose adoptive family took him to the Falkland Islands where he learned Yahgan, the language of the Yamana canoe people from Tierra del Fuego.  He founded the Anglican Mission at Ushuaia in 1870 and in 1886 received Argentine citizenship and a donation of land from the Argentine National Congress. It is here he founded the estancia, which is 85 km east of Ushuaia and was the first productive enterprise in Tierra del Fuego (earlier enterprises, such as sealing, whaling and gold digging were all exploitive). Harberton now belongs to the grandchildren of Thomas Bridges’ sons and was declared an Argentine National Historical Monument in 1999. 

Gardens @ Estancia Haberton

We toured the beautiful homestead in the morning including the Acatushun Museum, which is a working museum/laboratory for the study of the marine mammals and birds of the southern tip of South America.  Scattered throughout the grounds both indoors and out, were the skeletons of marine mammals in various stages of decomposition and cleaning.


The collection contains the skeletons of over 2,700 marine mammals and 2,300 birds.  Veterinary and marine biology interns spend time collecting and studying animals stranded on the beaches, doing necropsies, obtaining samples, cleaning skeletons for the collection and explaining their work to visitors.

Museum Intern

The process of removing the flesh of dead animals involved a very lengthy process of submerging the carcasses in water for periods of up to a year or more.  Needless to say the smell was quite overwhelming!!!  The results however were very beautiful and many were displayed in the museum.

Decompsing Dolphin Heads

After a very interesting tour, we took a small boat to Isla Martillo and as we approached the shoreline I could not believe I was going to have the opportunity to see wild penguins for the very first time!  We disembarked the boat and were given a guided tour around the colony, as we watched the penguins go about their lives and tending to their young.

Penguin Colony 

The Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) is named in honor of the maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who first recorded it during an expedition in 1519.  A medium-sized penguin, this species can be identified by the distinctive white bands which loop over the eye, down the side of the neck and meet at the throat.

Magellanic Penguin

The nests of Magellanic penguins comprise a simple scrape, often hidden under vegetation, or, where soil conditions permit, a burrow in soft soil or peat.  The burrow may be up to one meter long and ends in a round chamber. Once hatched, the young Magellanic penguins are brooded for 24 to 29 days, during which time they grow a rudimentary layer of feathers that helps them to maintain their body temperature. The adults then leave the young unattended and only return to feed them every one to three days.

Magellanic Penguin & Chick

After 40 - 70 days the chicks fledge, usually between January and March, and the adults molt their feathers in preparation for returning to the sea.  The newly-fledged juveniles and adults then spend May to August following the  northward movements of anchovies, their preferred prey.

Although the Magellanic penguin is not classified as globally threatened, it has nevertheless been severely impacted by several threats.  These include oil pollution resulting from the deliberate release of oily ballast water from tankers.

Penguins are particularly vulnerable to oil spills because they do not fly, instead swimming low in the water.  This makes them less likely to detect and avoid petroleum compared with other seabirds.  Chronic oil pollution is believed to kill more than 20,000 adult and 22,000 juvenile Magellanic penguins every year on the Argentinean coast.

Expanding commercial fisheries, particularly the Argentine anchovy fisheries, may also be having a detrimental effect on the Magellanic penguin population, although it has not yet been possible to quantify the exact impact.  At a more local level, threats to the Magellanic penguin include egg collection, predation by foxes, rats and cats, and disturbance by tourists.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Snow Leopard Cub Captures Hearts and More...

On August 17th, 2013, I was both honored and thrilled to be the official photographer at a private fundraiser for Project Survival Cat Haven and The Snow Leopard Conservancy, where a ten week old Snow Leopard named "Jackson" was the star attraction!

Jackson was named in honor of Dr. Rodney Jackson, founder of The Snow Leopard Conservancy and in celebration of his 30 years dedicated to saving this beautiful, endangered cat in the wild.  Project Survival Cat Haven is raising Jackson to be an ambassador for the species and he is certainly getting off to a wonderful start.

The event was held in the grounds of Relais du Soleil where donor guests was treated to the rare opportunity of having their portrait taken with the cub, in addition to hearing Dr. Jackson provide an overview of The Snow Leopard Conservancy and the current status of the snow leopard in the wild.

If you would like to meet Rodney and Darla in person, they will be at the Wildlife Conservation Network's Annual Expo in October along with other world renowned conservationists from around the globe.  This year's keynote speaker with be Jane Goodall, so it is an event not to be missed! 

Friday, August 2, 2013

"Weaners" get a second chance!

The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California plays a critical role in the survival of many marine mammals along the northern and central California coast.

Founded in 1975 by Lloyd Smalley on a former Nike Missile site in the Marin Headlands, it took in its first seven patients.  Much has changed since then including the opening up of its newly rebuilt headquarters in June 2009.  That same year, volunteers and staff responded to 1,704 marine mammals in distress - a record in the Center's history and a reflection of the immense challenges marine mammals face in our world today.  The Center is now one of the largest marine mammal hospitals in the world to combine animal rehabilitation with an onsite research lab.  It can care for up to 200 animals at once and treat 600 or more in a year.

Attending a marine mammal release is such a wonderful, uplifting experience.  Seeing plump healthy patients, once on the brink of death due to abandonment, entanglement, injury or starvation given a second chance is moving to say the least.

I recently attended the release of four Northern Elephant Seal "weaners" at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore, California.  Chimney Rock provides a safe haven for elephant seals to give birth and raise their young, so an ideal location to return them back to the wild.  Seals are classified as "weaners" when they are 1 - 12 months of age.  These four were each approximately five months old.

Northern elephant seals are found in the North Pacific, from Baja California, Mexico, to the gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. During the breeding season, they live on beaches on offshore islands and a few remote spots on the mainland.  The rest of the year, except for molting periods, elephant seals live well off shore (up to 5,000 miles, or 8,000 km), commonly descending to over 5,000 feet (1,524 m) below the ocean's surface.

The rehabilitated patients arrived in a large pick-up truck, safely hidden away for their two hour journey from the facility in Sausalito.  As the cover was partially removed, an anxious pair of eyes peeked through the opening.

Northern Elephant Seal peeks through opening in truck

Staff and volunteers proceeded to slowly open the rear gate as large boards were placed on either side to ensure the young seals only saw the expanse of ocean before them and not the group of onlookers. 

Pups are born with a black coat which is molted, or shed at about the time of weaning (28 days), revealing a sleek, silver-gray coat.  Within a year, the coat will turn a silvery brown.   These pups were approximately five months old.

Staff and volunteers open rear gate

Once the ramp was added, it did not take very long for the four weaners to make their way down to the beach, the first of which was a female.

Females grow to about 10 feet (3m) in length and 1,500 pounds (600 kg).  Each winter, elephant seals arrive at their breeding beaches in Mexico and California.  Males are the first to arrive and they fight each other to establish dominance.

Northern Elephant Seal pup makes her way down the ramp

As she reached the sand, she looked back a couple of times as if checking to see if any of her fellow releasees were on their way down the ramp, or perhaps to take one last look at those who had nursed her back to health?  

Females arrive soon after and associate with dominant males.  Several days after coming onto the beaches, the females give birth to the pups they have been carrying since last year.  Pups weigh 75 pounds (35 kg) or more and are about four feet (1.25m in length.  The pups nurse for about 28 days, generally gaining about 10lbs (4.5 kg) a day.  At this time, females will mate with one or more of the dominant males and then return to sea. For the next two months, weaned pups, called "weaners" remain on rookery beaches, venturing into the water for short periods of time, perfecting swimming and feeding abilities.  Eventually, the pups will learn to feed on squid, fish, and occasionally small sharks.

Female Northern Elephant Seal pup glances back at onlookers

As soon as she hit the water, you could sense the anticipation and the excitement!

The elephant seal is in the phocid, or true seal family  It lacks external ear flaps and moves on land by flopping on its belly.  The elephant seal has a broad, round face with very large eyes.

Female Northern Elephant Seal pup enters the surf!

In no time, a male and another female had joined her on the beach.

Elephant seals molt each year between April and August, shedding not only their hair, but also the upper lay of their skin as well.  This is known as catastrophic molt.  They return to rookery beaches for a few weeks while molting.  Females molt in the spring, juveniles in the early summer, and adult males molt in the late summer.

Male and female Northern Elephant Seal pups on the beach

This little male gave me a nervous glance as he made his way toward the surf.

Elephant seals are well named because adult males have large noses that resemble an elephant's trunk.  Males begin developing this enlarged nose, or probiscis, at sexual maturity (about three to five years), and it is fully developed by seven to nine years.  Adult males may grown to over 13 feet (4m) in length and weight up to 4,500 pounds (2,000 kg).

Male Northern Elephant Seal Pup glances at photographer

Pretty soon, all four were checking out their new home, occasionally heading back toward the beach and the smiling faces of staff, volunteers and onlookers.

While living in the open ocean, northern elephant seals spend a lot of time diving, up to two hours at a time.  They rarely spend more than four minutes at the surface of the water between dives.  It is believed that they eat deep-water, bottom-dwelling marine animals such as ratfish, swell sharks, spiny dogfish, eels, rockfish and squid. 

Northern Elephant Seal pups in the water

Finally, they all headed out to sea and toward an uncertain future.  I certainly hope it is a long, happy and healthy one!

Northern elephant seals are the second most common patient at The Marine Mammal Center.  From mid-February through the end of June, the Center's rescue and rehabilitation work focuses on orphaned elephant seal and harbor seal pups.  Usually these pups are washed away from the rookery during a storm or have not learned how to forage.

Northern Elephant Seal pups head out to sea

As a result, the pups are often severely underweight.  Weaned elephant seal pups should weigh 250lgs (113 kg).  Patients are often admitted weighing less than 100 lbs.  Elephant seals also suffer from other diseases such as northern elephant seal skin disease, pneumonia, and parasites, such as lungworm.  Because most of the Center's elephant seal patients suffer from malnutrition, many are successfully released (60-80%).

The northern elephant seal is a conservation success story.  After whales became scarce, elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction, primarily for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil.  By 1910, it is estimated that there were less than 100 elephant seals, all found on Guadalupe Island off Baja California, Mexico.  Today the northern elephant seal population is approximately 150,000, with 124,000 in California waters, and is probably near the size if was before they were over-hunted.

To learn more about The Marine Mammal Center and how you too can get involved and attend these special releases, visit:

*Informational content provided by The Marine Mammal Center*