Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Red-shouldered Hawk Encounter

Having recently moved up into the skyline forest above Monterey Bay, I now have a window into the world of some of the local birds, particularly the raptors that inhabit and hunt in this area.

One of these is the Red-shouldered Hawk, of which there appear to be a couple that regularly visit and vocalize in the tall Monterey Pines that surrounds my home. As soon as I hear their distinctive call, I grab my camera and head outside in the hope I can both locate them and capture a worthy image.

Yesterday however in the early evening, I noticed something quite large fly right by my living room window. I cautiously headed outside not wanting to spook whatever it might be and noticed one these beautiful birds perched at eye level in the adjoining pine. It had in its talons a grey rabbit, which it subsequently lost grip of leaving it fall to the ground below.

The rabbit was clearly dead at this point and knowing that it would not leave its prey, I quickly snuck back inside to get my D500 with my 200-500mm lens (currently one of my favorite body/lens combinations for wildlife photography). The hawk was still sitting on its perch when I returned as I slowly and carefully positioned myself for an optimal view of the rabbit. These birds are easily spooked, so I had to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible.

With the fading light, I decided to shoot video of the hawk returning to it's meal. Kneeling down low, I gently rested my lens on the balcony of my deck and focused on the the rabbit.

Well, it took quite some time before the hawk decided to return to the rabbit and as I kneeled as still as possible, I felt my feet and the bottom half of my legs going completely numb! It took about half an hour before it returned to the rabbit and began to enjoy its evening meal. I shot several minutes of footage before I really needed to move and get the blood flowing back to my feet!

Red-shouldered Hawks usually hunt by watching from a perch, either within the forest or out in the open, swooping down when they locate prey. They sometimes fly very low in open areas, taking creatures by surprise and may use hearing as well as sight to locate prey. Adults have distinctive dark-and-white checkered wings and warm reddish barring on the breast. The tail is black with narrow white bands.

Seeing this stunning bird at such close proximity was an absolute thrill and I hope you enjoy (assuming you are not too squeamish), this short video I was so lucky and as always...privileged to capture.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A morning at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

This morning I headed over to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve with a specific goal in mind...to photograph the Brandt's Cormorants at Bird Island. Right now these birds are busy preparing for nesting season and there is plenty of action!

Males choose the nest site and display to ward off rivals and attract a mate. Displays include drawing head back with blue throat pouch extended and bill pointed upward, spreading tail, and fluttering wings; also thrusting head forward and downward in rapid repeated strokes.

The nest site is on ground, either level or steeply sloped. The nest consists of a mound of seaweed, eelgrass, algae, cemented by droppings. Most nest material is obtained underwater with the male doing most of gathering and the female most of the building. A pair may use the same nest every year, adding to it annually.

While at Bird Island, I met another photographer who kindly shared the location of three Black-crowned Night Heron nests, two of the nests already with chicks, while the third had three beautiful pale green eggs being carefully tended by the female.

All these nests are located on small islands so away from human disturbance. They only thing they have to contend with are predators including crows, gulls, hawks and a resident pair of peregrine falcons. If unfledged chicks happen to fall out of the nests to the rocks or ocean below, they have pretty much sealed their fate.

Deriving its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland, the Reserve has often been called "the crown jewel of the State Park System" and it is easy to see why. Spectacular scenery, rock formations, hidden coves with turquoise water, and an incredible array of birds, wildlife, plants and trees can be found here. There is nowhere else like it on earth and I am so very fortunate to have it right on my doorstep.

If you decide to visit, weekends can be crazy, so arriving at the park when it opens at 8:00am is best. Otherwise, weekdays are going to be your safest bet.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

South Georgia on my mind...

Having recently returned from several weeks at the bottom of the world, I am now sifting through the thousands of images I shot bringing back wonderful memories from the amazing places visited.

If you ever decide to visit Antarctica and if funds allow, an itinerary that includes South Georgia Island will be well worth the investment.

South Georgia Island has to be one of the most mind blowing experiences when it comes to the sheer number of birds and wildlife that inhabit this very special place in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

Home to some of the largest king penguin populations on the planet, it can be overwhelming to first time visitors, especially when landing at Salisbury Plain or St. Andrews Bay.  Each of these sites accommodate king penguins in the hundreds of thousands! I have seen eyes well up and jaws drop at the mere sight and sound of nature on such a massive scale. On a previous trip, one traveler in particular with tears in their eyes said to me "Jackie, I don't know what to say, I am completely overwhelmed!"

January in particular is prime baby time with fur seal pups scattered along the beaches sleeping, nursing, hanging out in small groups or crying in search of their mothers. It is hard to not fall completely in love with them.

King penguins come and go, mating, bickering, sitting on eggs, tending their young, or emerging from the water with bellies full, as they make their way back to the colony to feed their hungry offspring. It is hard to comprehend how they can possibly find each other in the chaos, but somehow they do! The sounds coming from the colony is constant as conversations and calls fill the air!

Predators such as the Antarctic brown skuas hover above in search of eggs or small chicks to pluck away at opportune moments. Giant Southern Petrels also present a danger both on land and in the water. Elephant seals are also seen resting along the beaches or among the tussock grass. At this time of the year the massive males have returned to sea while the females and juveniles remain.

At Gold Harbor which happens to be one of my favorite locations, the king penguin colony is set against a stunning backdrop with the Bertrand Glacier cascading down and on a day like the one we had, glorious sunshine and blue skies made it picture postcard perfect! As part of the expedition team, I have the benefit of going ashore in the the shore party staff members. This allows me to capture wide angle and landscape images without people.

Soon after landing at Gold Harbor, I quickly unpacked my bag and set up my gear as it would not be long before guests started to arrive. As I was doing this, a pair of king penguins began to head right in my direction.  Oh what luck as the image I have so wanted to capture in this spot was transpiring right before my eyes!  A pair of king penguins on the beach in the foreground set against the stunning glacier and scenery.  I waited as they got closer and stopped, then slowly positioned myself to get the right composition, getting down low to include the background. As they turned their heads to face each other I fired off a few images before they decided to move on. This has to be one of my favorite images from South Georgia and one I intend to grace the walls of my home.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Photography in the Tropics

Having returned from my recent trip to Costa Rica and Panama as guest photography host with UnCruise Adventures, I reflected upon the challenges we faced from a photography perspective and wanted to share some tips and advice.

If you are planning a visit to the tropics, here are some key things to keep in mind.

1. The heat and humidity will cause your lenses to "immediately" fog up if you are bringing your gear from air conditioned environments outside. Your best bet is to store your gear in an area where it is not being moved from one extreme to the other. Otherwise you need to allow time to acclimate to the temperature changes. Missing a great shot because your lens is drenched is not fun. Moisture can wreak havoc on your gear and you don't want this to accumulate inside your camera body, so make sure you bring silicon packets as an absorbent and keep them in your camera bag.

2.  Birds and wildlife are difficult to spot particularly under the rainforest canopy. There are so many branches and leaves, so unless your subject is clearly visible and out in the open, the challenge is to find openings in order to acquire focus and get a half decent shot.

A telephoto or zoom with a focal length of at least 300mm is needed in order to get close enough to your subject. I had both a 300mm prime and a 200-500mm zoom lens which I would switch depending on just how much I wanted to carry around in the heat. I also had an external flash with a better beamer, which helps under the canopy, but you need to know how to adjust your flash output to avoid "over flashed" images. A natural look with just enough light to illuminate your subject is all you need.

3. Carrying a lot of gear while traipsing through the rainforest is tough and at times, I just wanted to ditch it all and go with one camera/lens combo. I used a BlackRapid Double Breathe harness, which I use all all my travels. It allows me to balance one camera/lens on either side, is very secure and the most comfortable I have found to date.

Depending the gear you bring and your expectations as far as the kind of images you wish to acquire, it might be better to bring one camera and one lens with a wide focal range, such as an 18-300mm. However, low light is not your friend and higher quality lenses with the ability to use wide apertures such as f/2.8 will allow you to use higher shutter speeds at lower ISO's. Unless your subject is stationary, much of the wildlife under the canopy will be moving, such as monkeys and birds, so at times compromises have to be made in order to just get the shot and in many cases, it is higher ISOs.

4. Light in the tropics can be harsh as the sun rises and sets quickly with direct overhead light predominant throughout the day. If under the canopy, beams of light filtering through the leaves and branches can be used creatively, or not. The key is to avoid pointing your camera up at a dark subject against a bright background and to look for alternatives. Otherwise, a flash is going to be your best bet. By exposing the image so the background is not blown out, then filling in with a flash, you will get the best results. Or, you purposely blow out your background in order to get your subject exposed correctly.

Preferably you want to capture your subject in natural light with no excessive bright or dark areas and at times you might be lucky, so always be aware of where you are in relation to your subject. Sometimes just moving to an alternate spot will give you the best vantage point and lighting situation.

5. Focus on the small stuff as there are so many incredible insects and amphibians. Colorful flowers are abundant and make beautiful subject matter as an alternative to wildlife. If you like to photograph the small stuff, a macro lens is worth the investment, even if you rent one instead of making a full blown purchase.

Out of the canopy and on tropical beaches, you may encounter various species of crab. They key here is to get down low in order to capture an intimate portrait of your subject. Lying on a beautiful white sand beach is not such a bad thing, so give it a go!

A word of warning...make sure you wear a wide brimmed hat and use plenty of sunscreen, otherwise you will end up with a nasty, burnt red neck, just like I did!

6. Tripod or not? In my case, since our trip was quite mobile, a tripod was of not much benefit. A monopod was easier to carry and position on narrow or uneven trails. However, if you are staying in a lodge or visiting areas where you will have time to spend watching and waiting for birds and wildlife, then yes, a tripod will allow you to set up your gear, particularly those long lenses and shoot at the ideal lower ISO's when working in difficult light.

7. Finally the weather. Depending on the time of year, you will need something to cover your gear should it rain. I visited at the end of the rainy season, so rain was minimal. During the couple of times it did rain, I brought Optech plastic rain sleeves and also a waterproof fabric cover I got off eBay, which I prefer since the plastic covers are a temporary solution and I don't like the idea of buying items that are disposable and bad for the environment. I also have a built in rain cover for my backpack, but you can also buy these separately.

The good thing about this time of year is the potential for some interesting skies, leading to beautiful, dramatic sunsets!

If you have any questions or need additional advice, please feel free to contact me!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tips for Whale Watching in Monterey Bay!

Yesterday morning I headed out on a whale watching tour in Monterey Bay. Now that I am a resident of this incredible area, I felt it was time I indulged myself in something people travel thousands of miles to see, which is literally on my doorstep!

I chose Monterey Bay Whale Watching as I often see their boats heading out they have excellent reviews. I also like the double level viewing platforms, which makes the vessel seem less crowded when it is packed to the gills! This allowed me more maneuverability on the lower level, which I tend to prefer.

Heading over to an area between Marina and Moss Landing, we were treated to several awesome humpback whale sightings which included pectoral fin slapping, lunge feeding and breaching!  We also encountered a large number of dolphins including Risso's and Pacific White-Sided dolphins.

ISO 640, f/7.1 @ 1/2500s, 300mm

Here are some useful tips for going out whale watching, particularly if you are susceptible to sea sickness! There were several people on this trip that did not fair too well and being out on the water for 4 hours feeling like absolute crap is not fun at all.  I have been there and done that on more than one occasion and it is only through my annual trips to the polar regions that I have finally found a solution.

First off, I recommend taking medication "the night prior" to your whale watching trip and NOT half an hour before boarding. This not only gets the medication into your system several hours prior, it helps you get a good night's sleep as many of these medications also cause drowsiness. I also take another tablet the morning of the trip, about an hour or two prior. I personally think the "recommended" half an hour prior is way too late because once you feel sick, the medication is not going to have an impact.

I eat a good breakfast consisting of tea, toast and a bowl of oatmeal. I avoid greasy food and also skip the coffee. Going out on a boat on an empty stomach is asking for trouble. I also bring saltine crackers and ginger ale on the boat to nibble on an sip throughout.

I avoid sitting inside the boat or at the rear where the diesel fumes tend to be more noticeable. I occasionally watch the horizon and make sure I have fresh air in my face. I will put the camera down every so often, as looking through a view finder for long periods can lead to feeling queasy.

This is the ONLY method that works for me.  It might not work for you, but I think it is worth trying if you are not having much success?

ISO 640, f/7.1 @ 1/2000s, 300mm
From a photography perspective, bringing a zoom with a wide range is going to cover a variety of situations as yesterday I failed to do this and regretted it.  I only brought my Nikon 300mm f/4 PF ED VR lens and a 1:4 teleconverter and was very limited in what I could ultimately capture.  With a breaching humpback calf so very close to the boat, I missed out on some awesome shots.  Lesson learned!!!

Capturing a breaching whale involves shooting at a high shutter speed and in continuous drive mode. Paying attention to the behavior and where it might potentially emerge from the water also helps. I will focus roughly in the area where I think it might happen and scan back and forth with my other eye open, so I can quickly reacquire focus on the whale if and when it happens!

As for clothing, wrap up with several layers as a sunny day out on Monterey Bay can be very deceiving.  I found myself switching from a cap to a warm beanie and adding another layer as the wind picked up.

I hope these tips will both help and inspire you to also get out there give whale watching a try, whether that is in Monterey Bay or some other location around the globe!

ISO 720, f/8 @ 1/2000s, 300mm

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Arctic Highlights - Part Two

I always make sure I bring my GoPro on all the expedition tours I take, as I find it is fantastic for capturing time lapse footage. I generally set it up on the top deck of the ship and include the front of the bow to convey a sense of scale, particularly while traversing through areas with large icebergs!  I also include footage from other parts of the ship and on this most recent trip, I tested out the view looking back on both the port and starboard sides.

Here is a video I compiled using a combination of short clips, primarily as we traversed the stunning fjords of east Greenland. 

The GoPro version I use is the Hero4 Silver Edition. I particularly love the touch screen back, which makes it very easy to adjust settings quickly and I use the open back protective casing allowing easy access. If I was to put the GoPro under water, I would switch the back for the full protective casing. I learned my lesson the hard way last year by putting the GoPro in the water, not realizing I had not switched and it was completely ruined.

I use the GoPro Jaws Flex Clamp, which allows me to clip the camera onto a variety of spots around the ship. I have found this to be the most sturdy and versatile attachment after trying a variety of other options including the Jobu Gorillapod, which I would wrap around a pipe only for it to slip down due to the vibration from the ship's engine, whereas the Jaws Flex Clamp stays firmly in place.

Settings are as follows:

Mode: Time Lapse Video
Interval: 5 Seconds
Resolution: 4K

I prefer the Time Lapse Video mode as opposed to the Time Lapse Photo mode simply because the video is compiled "in-camera. If I wanted stills from the video, I would go with the latter.  Note however, in the Time Lapse Video mode there is no option as far as the field of view i.e.: Wide, Medium, Narrow.

I compile the video using the now obsolete "GoPro Studio", which I thankfully have on my laptop and desktop computers. I have heard the new "GoPro Quik" is lacking many of the previous features, which makes very little sense to me.  Otherwise I would go with iMovie as an alternative.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Arctic Highlights - Part One

I have just returned from an amazing three week trip to the Arctic, two of which were in my role as Photographer in Residence with G Adventures on their Arctic Highlights" tour. This is the final tour of the season beginning with three days exploring Svalbard, before heading east to Greenland. The remainder of the tour centers around the fjords of east Greenland before heading south, another two day journey and finishing up in Reykjavik, Iceland."

This is my third season in the Arctic, but my first time on this particular tour and I have to say, it totally blew my mind! Greenland, the largest island on the planet did not disappoint, providing us with jaw dropping scenery, amazing wildlife sightings and two aurora borealis displays!

Although the majority of the tour explores uninhabited areas, we did however visit the remote Inuit community of Ittoqqortoormiit, which I found to be both fascinating and somewhat sad. Climate change is having an impact on their livelihood, particularly hunting, which is an essential part of life in this harsh, unforgiving land. The day we were there is was raining and we heard this seems to be a far more common occurrence.

Ittoqqortoormiit is the remotest inhabited community in the western hemisphere, home to
approximately 450 inhabitants. It lies south of the Northeast Greenland national park and north of Scoresby Sund, the largest national park and fjord on earth! Although the Inuit have inhabited this part of the world for centuries, the colony was only established in 1924 by the Dane, Ejnar Mikkelsen, as a means to ensure the Danish flag would be flying before the Norwegians, who had already secured Spitsbergen in 1920 and were showing an interest in northeast Greenland.

Prior to landing, I had heard from members of the expedition staff that a highlight of the visit is to see and play with the east Greenland husky puppies which wander the town. They are intentionally allowed to do this, but once they become "working" dogs, they are chained up and we were understandably not allowed to go near them. I subsequently learned that this is because they become territorial and can potentially bite. If someone is bitten, they are then shot...not fair to either the dog, or to its owner.

Yet how I loved seeing the puppies as they eagerly sought our attention and even though we were all soaking wet, it was an experience I will treasure.

Stay tuned as I share more about this incredible part of the world, from the stunning color and beauty of the Arctic tundra; massive, blue icebergs and a surprising seven polar bear sightings!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Point Lobos Native Plant Patrol

Another morning at Point Lobos removing invasive plants and on this occasion, collecting seeds!  We walked along the coastal trail towards Weston Beach stopping at an area which has been successfully replanted with beautiful, flowering native plants!

Point Lobos Native Plant Patrol Volunteer Jeff
The success of this particular area is due to the addition of a mesh layer preventing the non-native plants from getting through and taking over. We removed the odd invasive, but nothing to be concerned about and boy, what a sight to behold!  Simply stunning!

We also collected seeds from native plants, which will then be used to restore other areas around the park. They are brought to a greenhouse, potted and grown to the size of a seedling before replanting.

Thriving native plants protected by mesh layer

If you are interested in learning more and participating, here is some more information from the Point Lobos Foundation website:

Pearly Everlasting
(Anaphalis margaritacea) Seeds

Point Lobos Native Plant Patrol crew welcome you to join our team the 1st and 3rd Friday of every month to help restore the beautiful Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.  Restoration work activities include: weeding, seed collection, and planting! No experience is necessary to join in, everyone is welcome! Please bring water and wear clothing that will protect against poison oak, weather and ticks (long pants and long sleeved shirt). Gloves, additional white protective outer layer and a snack will be provided. Native Plant Patrol crew will meet from 9am -1pm, however may end early if weather conditions are difficult.  Please contact abonnette@pointlobos.org to RSVP and for more information.

I have found this to date to be a fun, rewarding experience in an absolutely stunning location!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Getting involved in local conservation

With my recent move down to Monterey, California, I wanted to involve myself pretty quickly in local conservation efforts. I find it is a great way to do my part in the community in addition to networking and potentially connecting with organizations or individuals who are in need of photography.

Volunteering is a great way meet new people and I signed up to participate in a bi-weekly native plant patrol at beautiful Point Lobos State National Reserve, just south of Carmel. This reserve is an absolute gem with incredible scenery bordering a turquoise ocean and an abundance of birds and wildlife. It is considered the "the crown jewel of California's 280 state parks and a photographer's dream!

Invasive plants have been introduced over the years and our job was to remove a variety of fast growing grasses and succulents and although beautiful, are detrimental to the native plants and wildlife. The area we would be working in was thick with poison oak and notorious for ticks, so we dressed in a protective,"unflattering" outer layer which I was very glad of.

We spent the morning digging, pulling and bagging in a area overlooking Whaler's Cove.  It is thought some of these plants were introduced from overseas during the days of whaling and other commercial activities including shipping, granite quarrying and abalone harvesting.

To learn more about Point Lobos and volunteer opportunities, you can visit the Point Lobos Foundation.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Farewell "Luckier"!

With my move out of the bay area this week, this morning I paid a final visit to the bald eagles in Milpitas, California. "Luckier" is extending it's flight range further afield and was perched on top of a residential rooftop when I arrived with mother close by.  Mother left and Luckier flew to the small pedestrian bridge near a neighboring pond where I managed to get this portrait.

It then took off and vanished from sight for a couple of hours only to return to another roof.  The hope was the mother would return to feed Luckier in the large field adjacent to the school, but it did not happen. She arrived with a fish which she ate atop a pylon. Nature does not always cooperate as we would like.