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.