Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Antarctica you did not know!

If your view of Antarctica is that of a barren and white landscape, well think again!

During my three week assignment this past March in Antarctica with G Adventures we visited one of my favorite locations, Petermann Island.  Just north of the Antarctic Circle, Petermann Island is a small low rounded island 1.8 km (1.1 mi) long and 1.2 km (0.75 mi) wide.  On the two occasions we visited, both were entirely different.

For the first visit, we were met with sparkling white snow, yet only one week later, I could not believe my eyes as the entire landscape had turned bright pink and green!  I was to learn that this was due to the formation of algae.

When I returned home and started to process my images, I wanted to learn more about the phenomenon.

Here is an explanation by Luis Georg which I came across on a website named PerfScience.

 "In a new study, researchers have described about red-pigmented, snow-dwelling algae that has turned Arctic glaciers’ snow into pink. After analyzing red snow algae present across 21 glaciers in the pan-European Arctic, the researchers have raised concerns as snow algae accelerates the melting of Arctic glaciers. 

 The algae are present all over the world in polar and alpine settings from Greenland and Antarctica to Iceland and the European Alps. In the winter, the red snow algae are present in dormant state in the snow as spores. But as the spring and summer take place and their icy habitat starts to melt, they start to produce pink landscapes.

As per the researchers, the algae are helping the snow melt faster. Glaciers are known to keep the planet cool by reflecting sunlight. But when glaciers melt, they give way to ocean surfaces having a lower albedo, which makes earth to absorb more sunlight and heat. 

 In the case of red snow algae, they reduce the albedo by 13%. Study’s lead researcher Steffi Lutz of the University of Leeds said that red snow algae blooms could quite widespread in the Arctic by summertime. 

The researchers said that current climate change models include black carbon, but they should also include algae too. For now, the researchers do not have a clear idea on the level of role algae plays in melting glaciers. 

“Based on personal observations, a conservative estimate would be 50 percent of the snow surface on a glacier at the end of a melt season. But this can potentially be even higher”, said Lutz. Now, the research team is working to find out the level of the melt because of the red snow algae. 

 It is an important aspect as Arctic has witnessed quite a hot year. A concern being raised by the researchers is that even if red snow algae have a smaller role to play on Arctic ice cover today, their role could increase has human carbon emissions warm the planet. 

In order to bloom, the algae need liquid water. Therefore, if there would be more melting, there would be more algae. It is expected that as temperatures are rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon would also increase leading to an even bigger bio-albedo effect. 

The algae are green in color, but they produce a natural sunscreen that turns the snow pink and red. The addition of color darkens the snow color, making it to heat faster and causing it to melt more rapidly. Now, the researchers are aware of what causes the snow turn pink but it was a high-latitude curiosity when Arctic explorers like the British Captain John Ross reported about it. 

In fact, when the London Times reported about it in 1818, it was speculated to be the result of meteoriciron deposits. The current study highlights the far-reaching effects of climate change."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Survival of the Fittest

This image was taken on a bleak day at Danco Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The sky was dark and overcast with sprinkles of snow as I made my way across a rocky surface on my way up to a lookout point.  En route I encountered a pair of large Brown Skuas (Stercoraius antarcticus lonnbergi) feasting on a dead Gentoo Penguin.

Skuas predate on penguin chicks, so how this adult penguin met this fate is unknown, but the scene demonstrated to me how wildlife survives in this harsh, unforgiving environment.

I got down and dirty, lying on my stomach among penguin guano in order to capture an intimate view of the behavior.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Nesting Bald Eagles of Milpitas

Today I ventured out to see a pair of nesting bald eagles on the grounds of Curtner Elementary School, in Milpitas, California.  Since the school is naturally off limits during school hours and today being a holiday, I figured it was as good a time as any and to avoid weekend visitors.  As news of the birds spreads, more and more people and photographers are showing up to get a glimpse of the pair and their fast growing chick. The school has apparently revised the times that people are allowed on the grounds limiting it to after 6:00pm during school days, as I am guessing this is becoming an issue.

I waited for about three hours as one parent remained in the nest while the other left in search of breakfast. It managed to capture a ground squirrel in the field behind the school and while a couple of other people with cameras went in pursuit, I chose to remain.

Chasing wildlife just to get the shot is ethically wrong and something I teach in all my photography classes. I strongly adhere to the North American Nature Photography Association's Ethical Practices concerning wildlife photography.  Allowing the bird or animal to go about its natural behavior takes precedence!  The bald eagle in this case was unable to remain on the ground and ultimately took flight, but thankfully with its catch.

My strategy paid off, as I waited in a shaded area with the sun behind my back to avail of the best possible light and angle. When the parent returned, which I knew it ultimately would, it had in its talons the ground squirrel and I was able to fire off a few images as it passed by en route to the nest.

Bald Eagle with Prey

Thursday, May 4, 2017

NEW Nature Photography Meetup Group Announced!

I am pleased to announce a new nature photography Meetup Group called "Newbie Nature Photographers"!

This group is specifically for people new to photography, but with a particular interest in photographing the natural world, such as birds and wildlife.

I will be organizing small group events/workshops initially in Northern California, where newbie photographers can learn some of the basic skills, techniques and ethical practices I use in order to capture compelling images of wildlife.

Keeping the groups small and of a similar experience level will ensure everyone gets personalized attention without getting lost in the crowd, learns at a similar pace and is not overwhelmed or intimidated by more experienced photographers.

I love to teach and my style is friendly, relaxed, informative and easy to follow.  If you would like to join the group and potentially join me on an upcoming event or workshop, here is the link!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sierra Club's DAILY RAY OF HOPE!

It is always an honor to have the Sierra Club select my images for their "Daily Ray of Hope".  I love their inspirational quotes.  To subscribe, go here:  http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra-club-email/daily-ray-of-hope

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. As much as a backpack "seems" to draw less attention, lugging it around for extended periods of time is tough, especially when it is fully loaded.

As for my lenses, 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.