Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Giving up an f/stop to go Lighter!

Traveling long distances and working in the challenging cold climates of the Arctic and Antarctic have led me to rethink the kind of equipment I bring with me. One thing that is becoming an issue is the weight of the gear I am lugging around both in transit and on the ground. The other thing is issues with carrying on my gear when overhead bin space is tight.

To combat the carrying on issue, I am no longer using my Think Tank International Airport Security Rolling Bag. Twice I have been asked to check it in at the gate and suffice to say, I made it very clear that was impossible since there was over $20k worth of gear in the bag. In one case they would not budge and I had to take out my most delicate gear, stuff it in my backpack and also handhold my 500mm lens. Needless to say I was not a happy camper.  I really think there is going to come a time when roll-on bags will no longer be allowed in the cabin, so it is time to change my strategy!

So I decided to go with a backpack, the now discontinued "GuraGear Bataflae 32L", which would not draw quite as much attention, although....I was once again asked to check it in on a return trip from New Mexico because the overhead bin space was full.  My first flight was late, so I just made the gate in time and was the last to board. As the sweat was pouring off me after running through the airport, I told them I couldn't check the bag in because of the contents. I was told I might have to take another flight.  So I suggested if they checked the bins and removed the jackets and other small bags that people put in there, I am sure there would be space for my backpack. The attendant grudgingly checked and there was plenty of space in first class which is where it ultimately ended up:)

As much as a backpack "seems" to draw less attention, lugging it around on one's back is torture when it is loaded to the gills! I am tall, 5'11 and weigh just under 150 pounds and I am not overly strong or muscular in my upper body (something I need to work on I guess). So, to get to the point of my posting, it is because of the weight of my gear that I have begun the process of gradually switching to lighter options.

Here is what I have done so far....

AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED replaced with AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR

Weight difference = 31.7oz versus 25.00oz

AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED replaced with AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR

Weight difference = 50.5oz versus 30.00oz

Total weight savings = 26.57oz or 1.660lbs

As much as I hated giving up such incredible lenses, I find I am using them less and less and leaving them at home. I can't afford to go out and buy additional lenses, so my only option was to sell and replace. Losing one stop of light right now does not seem to be an issue, especially with the ISO capability of my D500 and D750. I also like the additional reach on the 24-120mm, particularly for travel photography.

A third camera body I am also leaving at home on my upcoming trip to Antarctica is the D3s. Although it is built like a tank, once again the weight has made the decision for me. Not sure yet if I will sell this too. Since acquiring the D500, this is becoming the body of choice for bird and wildlife photography, so we will see.

As for selling my lenses, I managed to get far more on eBay as opposed to the amount offered by online camera stores. I was offered only $750.00 for my "pristine condition" 24-70mm, but sold it on eBay for $1100.00. Quite a big difference indeed!  The 70-200mm got me close to $1,000.00 which again, I was offered only $750.00 to sell or trade in.

So I leave for Antarctica in two weeks and we will see how both the carry on procedure goes AND how these lenses ultimately work out! 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Oslo's Amazing Vigeland Sculpture Garden

Oslo is a city I have always wanted to visit and I had that chance last year at the end of my month in the arctic. I had one full day entirely to myself prior to returning to California, so I was anxious to see as much as I could in the time I had remaining.  A place of particular interest and recommended to me was the Vigeland Sculpture Garden at Frogner Park.

Since I was staying at an airport hotel, I firstly had to shuttle back to the airport and take a train into the city.  There are two options available and I learned it was cheaper to not take the airport train, but the regular commuter train as it was half the price. With Norway being notoriously expensive, I figured this was sound advice!

The journey took about half an hour depositing me at the central station, where I took out a map and decided to head in the direction of the park. The sun was shining and a gorgeous day to explore this beautiful city!  I took one of the "hop on, hop off" double decker tour buses and utilized the service to see as much of the city as possible, in addition to stopping at the park where I initially disembarked.

Upon entering the main gates I was greeted with a beautiful tree lined walkway bordered by spring flowers.  This led to a bridge over a lake which was the starting point of the sculpture garden. Sculptures of nude men, women and children in various poses and interactions led the way further into the park. I found it interesting to just sit and watch which sculptures people were drawn to.

As I walked further into the park, beautiful displays of colorful flowers reminded me of my childhood in England and visiting Kew Gardens with my family.

I had not seen any pictures of the park prior to my visit, so I really did not know what to expect.  As I continued my stroll, a beautiful fountain become the centerpiece before ascending a series of steps, through more flower displays and another set of steps until I arrived at the incredible array of statues around the centerpiece which was a dizzying array of bodies entwined about a tall column.  

I loved the variety of sculptures around this centerpiece, but was particularly drawn to the romantic interactions between men and women. Really quite beautiful and I don't think you can visit Oslo without a visit to this magnificent park.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Beautiful Bosque del Apache!

I have just returned from five wonderful days at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico.  The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, fondly known as "The Bosque," is in New Mexico near the small town of San Antonio, NM, 9 mi. south of Socorro, and less than an hour and a half from Albuquerque. The Refuge is an important wintering home for Sandhill Cranes, and will host as many as 14,000 during the winter months. This was my second visit and I had a goal in mind as far as images I wanted to capture this time around.

Bosque can be a bit overwhelming from a photography perspective and it is very easy to get caught up taking multiple images of the same subject.  Besides the Sandhill Cranes, Bosque is also home to over 32,000 Snow Geese and Ross Geese, dozens of Bald Eagles and Goldens, Great Blue Herons, occasional Pelicans, Avocets, and many, many other birds. Mammals include herds of Mule Deer and families of Coyotes.

One of my personal goals was to capture motion blurs of the massive numbers of geese as they took flight.  While sharp images can be just as interesting, I have found that motion blurs tend to convey the movement and the mayhem as thousands of geese erupt into the sky!  I also found this was a wonderful alternative either during low light when pushing up the ISO introduced too much noise into the image (for my liking), or when light became too bright whereby I lowered my ISO to the minimum, stopped down my aperture to the smallest opening and also used my exposure compensation if my image needed less exposure.  So in essence, you can shoot throughout most of the day just by using a little imagination:)

The image here was captured by zooming in on the birds and panning to follow their movement. Camera and settings were as follows:

Nikon D500
AF-S Nikkor 200mm - 500mm ED VR
f/32 @ 1/30s / ISO 50

Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) & Ross Geese (Chen rossii)

Friday, November 11, 2016

Three Days in Point Reyes

My day began at 5:30am and not wanting to disturb my hostel room mates, I quickly dressed and left the dormitory hopefully not waking them up in the process.  The hostel has a large kitchen area and I was able to make some fresh coffee for my flask before I took to the road.

The plan this morning was to visit Tomales Point with the goal of capturing some tule elk images in the early morning light.  The drive from the hostel took about 45 minutes arriving in the Pierce Point Ranch parking lot around 6:30am in darkness.

As I was about to turn down a hill toward the ranch, I had the most amazing experience!  A pair of large coyotes stood right in the middle of the road near a small group of tule elk.  My arrival seemed to upset them as they both began to howl!  I naturally stopped and watched them as they then took off into the surrounding brush.  I can only think they were maybe planning on trying to bring down an elk? From what I have read, they have been known to kill young or injured/frail elk.

I sat in my car until the sun began to rise as I did not want to take to the trail in the dark.  Mountain lions have been spotted, including one I saw here many years ago up on a distant hill.  As soon as it was light enough, I packed up my backpack with water and a snack and headed up onto the trail.  The trail to the point is 4.7 miles and my intent was to walk in about three of those, as the final 1.5 miles are officially unmaintained, overgrown and sandy.

Hiking along this trail is quite spectacular, especially on clear days, offering fantastic, elevated views over the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Tomales Bay and the mainland to the east - like walking across a high island!  Again, being the first person there was a wonderfully freeing feeling!  How lucky am I to be in such a beautiful place!

It did not take long for me to encounter more tule elk, this a group of females in beautiful golden light, so I slowed down and found a spot on the trail to watch and photograph them from. The elk here are accustomed to seeing people, so my presence did not totally spook them.  Each time I moved however, they were quick to look up from their eating, but settled back down once I remained still.

Female Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes)

While doing some online research about the elk, I came across a blog by wildlife photographer Jim Coda and I was surprised to read some of the issues relating to the management of the tule elk in Point Reyes, particularly at Tomales Point.  These include disease, lack of access to water during drought and fences which in essence have them "in captivity".  There certainly seems to be contention with the local farmers as far as grazing rights and it brought mind the ongoing crisis in regard to our beautiful, wild horses.  It seems wildlife ultimately and sadly ends up being the loser.

I continued my walk along the trail to high point where I could look out towards Tomales Point with the Pacific to my left and Dillon Beach on the mainland to my right.  Looking down I could see more elk including several stags.  This is typically the area one would be guaranteed to see elk on the trail, close to three miles in.  This is when I encountered my very first burrowing owl at Point Reyes.  I went off trail to access a view point and in doing so, stumbled on a burrow which in turn caused the bird to take flight.  I have made note of the GPS coordinates for a future visit.

Tomales Point Trail View
After my morning on the trail, I spent the afternoon at McClures Beach, which is accessible via a second parking lot and trail right next to the Pierce Point Ranch.  In all the years I have been visiting Point Reyes, I had never walked down to the beach, so decided this would be as good a time as any. So I made myself a sandwich, packed up my backpack and headed on down.

McClures Beach is a favorite with photographers because of the dramatic rock formations at either end, so I wanted to scout it out as a potential spot to return to at sunset.  I walked down the short and relatively steep trail arriving at this beautiful cove, empty except for a couple of people who left shortly afterwards. So once again, I had a stretch of stunning California coastline to myself. Although I did not stick around for sunset, it is definitely on my "must return to" list.

McClures Beach

Next stop was Kehoe Beach, yet another spot I have never visited.  Kehoe Beach is the northern end of the Great Beach or Point Reyes Beach, a spectacular stretch of undeveloped coastline totaling 11 miles in length. The drive to Kehoe from McClures was less than 10 minutes.  There is no parking lot as such, but ample areas to pull off from the road.  So I decided to take a walk to the beach without camera gear as it was still too early for the best light.  The walk is about 0.6 miles alongside a marsh and through sand dunes.  Once on the beach, to the left there is a stream that leads out to the ocean. Here there were lots of gulls.  To the right there were rock formations and a stretch of beach where dogs are allowed "on leash".  The beach area south and to the left is off limits to dogs as this area is protected habitat for the threatened Western Snowy Plover.

Kehoe Beach

I decided that this might be a good spot to stick around for sunset, so headed back to my car to get my gear and a quick snack.  As I was switching lenses and preparing my backpack I was paid a visit by a very curious California Scrub Jay.  California Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica) are a common sight and sometimes overlooked as photographic subjects, but I think they are incredibly beautiful with their brilliant azure blue feathers. Assertive, vocal, and inquisitive, this fellow took an interest in me and I could not resist capturing this comical pose as he stared intently.

California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) 

I headed back to the beach and started to look for a good spot to catch the sunset.  Here is a favorite of silhouetted dune grasses against the darkening sky and crescent moon.

Kehoe Beach

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Three Days in Point Reyes

I have traveled far and wide, yet Point Reyes National Seashore remains undoubtedly my favorite place on the planet.  This is my 18th consecutive year visiting the area and I personally think one of the best times to see it, as there are less tourists and minimal coastal fog.

I recently spent three mid-week days there with the sole purpose of acquiring some new images to add to my portfolio and to enjoy solitary time in nature.

Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,028-acre park preserve located on the Point Reyes Peninsula in Marin County, California. As a national seashore, it is maintained by the US National Park Service as an important nature preserve.

Some existing agricultural uses are allowed to continue within the park and there are several historical ranches dotted across the landscape, some operational while others are remnants with empty, abandoned buildings.  Clem Miller, a US Congressman from Marin County wrote and introduced the bill for the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 to protect the peninsula from development which was proposed at the time for the slopes above Drake's Bay.

The Point Reyes peninsula is a well defined area, geologically separated from the rest of Marin County and almost all of the continental United States by a rift zone of the San Andreas Fault,about half of which is sunk below sea level and forms Tomales Bay.  Although it is less than an hours drive north of San Francisco, it feels worlds apart.  The breathtaking scenery and wildlife, the serenity and opportunity for peace and solitude are what draws me back time and time again.  The landscape is constantly changing and no two visits are alike.

I left San Jose at 6:00am arriving at Point Reyes Station by 8:30am. Normally I can do this in about 1 hr, 45 mins, but I hit commuter traffic near Oakland and prior to crossing the San Rafael Bridge. Once off the highways and on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the journey.

Abbotts Lagoon Parking Area & Trailhead
After arriving in town, I had grabbed a coffee and pastry at the Bovine Bakery, first stop on the agenda was Abbott's Lagoon, about a 15 minute drive.

My first wildlife encounter was en route and although brief, was awesome as a bob cat ran across the road with breakfast in it's mouth. I was just thankful that it managed to get across without me or anyone else hitting it.

I arrived to find an empty parking lot, so I packed my backpack with sunscreen, water and a snack, grabbed my camera gear and headed onto the trail.

A lagoon is "a brackish water lake separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of beach." Abbotts Lagoon comprises of a north wing and a south wing, and the trail runs between the wings, then crosses a bridge and heads through the sand to the ocean. For the first mile only the north wing is visible from the trail, with views of the south wing blocked by hills.

The walk to the lagoon and out to the beach is an easy 1.5 miles and is really beautiful with benches en route to sit and enjoy the sights and sounds that surround you.  You also never know what you are going to see and being the only person on the trail allows for encounters with birds and wildlife that become less likely as more people arrive.

Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemiounus columbianu)

No sooner had I gotten on the trail when I spotted a female black-tailed deer (or mule deer) about to cross the trail, so I stopped to let her pass. This herbivore is the most common form of wildlife seen throughout the park, outside of the bird world. Since I had camera in hand, I was able to fire off a couple of images.  I have found the combination of my D750 and Nikkor 200mm - 500mm works really well for hiking without too much weight and a nice range of focal length.

As I progressed further along the trail towards the marshy area of the lagoon, I came upon a scrub jay perched atop a bush, so I stopped to capture an image. As I was about to take the image, a northern flicker decided it too wanted to be part a part of the photo opportunity and perched on a lower branch. It only lasted a moment, but I managed to get the shot.

California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) & Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

The trail meanders its way through a marshy area with a wooden boardwalk toward the sands dunes and prior to crossing a small wooden bridge it opens up with a view looking back towards the lagoon. The surface was like glass and the colors of the landscape were absolutely stunning with rich greens and blues.  Other birds and animals I saw were rabbits, black-crowned sparrows, marsh wrens, black phoebes and both hawks and vultures circling up above.  

Abbotts Lagoon
Abbotts Lagoon - North Wing

Once I reached the beach, I stopped to just take in the view, breathe deeply and inhale the fresh sea air as waves rolled in.  The beach offers panoramic views and you can walk north to "Kehoe Beach" or south to “The Great Beach” of Point Reyes. The beaches along this coastline can be dangerous as "sneaker" or "rogue" waves have taken lives, so I always make sure I keep a safe distance and never turn my back on the surf while walking along the shore.

Abbotts Lagoon Beach

Abbotts Lagoon Beach is a noted area for the threatened Western Snowy Plover.  From May to September, areas are roped off and signs posted to ensure these little shorebirds are protected so they can nest and raise their young with minimal disturbance. Plovers will use almost anything they can find on the beach to both hide and make their nests, including kelp, driftwood, shells, rocks, and even human footprints.  During the winter, they use these beach areas to rest, so I was curious as to whether I would actually find any.

Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus)

Trying to spot these little birds is tough as they are well camouflaged and blend in with the sand, so binoculars are a must.  They also try to hide lower down in the sand and remain very still when there is any activity or movement. Well, I was in luck and came across a group of about ten hidden in small indentations. Not wanting to disturb them unnecessarily, I lay down and slowly and gradually crawled closer within a reasonable distance, so I could capture a few images.

My day ended with checking-in to the Point Reyes Hostel located near Limantour Beach ready for an early night, in preparation for getting up at 5:00am the following morning.  

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 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!