Earlier this fall, my wife Kerry and I took a trip up to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California. As we got up to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we stopped at Elk Meadow, a popular spot to see one of the few herds of Roosevelt Elk that survive in and around the Redwood parks.
As it was fall, we were treated to witnessing rutting season, the time of year where bull elks assert their dominance in the quest for female attention. It was readily apparent who the big, dominant bull was, decoratively adorned with straw hanging from his antlers. The regularity of his bugles told us that he had a high opinion of himself!
Exhausted from his efforts of showing off, he took a bit of a snooze in the grass.
Roosevelt elk is the largest of the four surviving subspecies of elk in North America. Today Roosevelt elk in California persist only in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and western Siskiyou County. Seven elk herds call Redwood National and State Parks home, although at times these herds become loose aggregations of smaller groups. Although this is a pretty easy large mammal to see in North America, I always delight at their antics, whether it is during the fall rut or the spring calving season.
Winter is coming to the SF Bay Area, and so are the wonderful variety of wintering birds. I set out on a recent afternoon to see what the winds have brought in, and to capture some of these winged denizens in beautiful golden light. Looking back through the day’s photos though, I realized that most of what I saw were year-round birds. Oh well, even if I didn’t see a typical winter’s variety, the winter months always tend to be a bit more “birdy” around here.
My patience with this commoner was rewarded with some decent take-off and flight shots. Birds in flight are more than a little difficult to shoot with my 800mm beast. So I always give a thank you to those who take off slowly, giving my ample time to track them with autofocus.
Green herons are pretty common around my house, but are usually seen only by the most avid birders. You wouldn’t think it from the photograph, but these guys can really blend into the rocks and vegetation surrounding the water channels. If they aren’t moving, they are very hard to spot, even when scanning a shoreline with a scope. Therefore, it is always a treat when I do see one and can get close enough for decent photographs.
Fox sparrows have a wide range, which includes both breeding and wintering in the Bay Area. However, I’ve seen them more commonly in the winter. These guys are definitely more rare than some of the most common sparrows, and I was happy to catch one on camera as it stopped for a few quick seconds on a branch.
I’m always happy to see these wrens flitting about. They are uncommon enough to warrant excitement, and it was nice to capture one in a natural environment. I have a family of Bewick’s wrens that visit my front yard, but photographs of bird feeders are relegated to my stock collection.
White-crowned sparrows are very common during the winter along the bay, but are not seen here in the summer months. However, they are year round residents just over the hill along the coast. Seeing white-crowned sparrows often reminds me of the diversity of San Mateo county and how you can see an entirely different ecosystem of birds by traveling a few short miles.
Finally, I rounded out my afternoon with the big daddy of the marsh, the great egret. They are very common, but also beautiful. Here I found a nice looking specimen so I spent a little time photographing him. Overall, it was a pretty birdy afternoon – I’m looking forward to the influx of wintering waterfowl that will bring great visual variety to the area.
In August my friend Steve and I attempted a quick four day loop through parts of Inyo National Forest. Our plan was to ascend Piute Pass, head down the other side to Evolution Valley, and loop back up Darwin Canyon through Lamarck Col to complete the loop at North Lake. Sounded pretty simple, and going through some beautiful country. What we hadn’t planned on when creating the trip was how much snow was still in the mountains from the heavy winter. Even though it was August, snow still covered much of our trail.
As our trip date approached, we saw that not only would we have lots of snow to contend with, but also some very wet weather. Monsoonal moisture was pushing up from the east side of the Sierra, looking to drench our trip. After some deliberation, we decided to push forward, hoping for at least one clear evening or morning in Evolution Valley. I’d certainly put up with four days of rain for one beautiful landscape shot to add to my portfolio.
The climb up to Piute Pass was uneventful, passing a series of lakes on the way to the day’s high point. Glaciers clung to the northern slopes of the mountains, feeding small waterfalls. We did encounter several groups of happy campers who had spent the previous night at some of these lakes. I spoke briefly to a man named John and his son Clay who looked like they braved the nighttime rains in good spirits.
As we got closer to the top, I started seeing small fields of wildflowers. It was the right time of year for this elevation, but given how much snow was still in the mountains, I hadn’t been thinking of wildflowers at all.
As soon as we were over the pass, we were treated to panoramic views of the mountains to the south. We had a short respite of flat ground, before the trail steepened and we descended into forest. As the rain started to fall, I donned my lightweight rain jacket and began to wonder if I was really prepared for potentially four days of rain. Soon we came across our first water crossing. The typical rock hop had swollen to a deep, fast flow, requiring the removal of my boots and a careful crossing. While the water was only up to my mid thigh, I began to worry about the crossings to come, knowing that some were much deeper.
Some days on the trail, the terrain wins the day. This was certainly one of those days. By the time we got to our campsite area, I was absolutely beat, and soaking wet from the five hours of downpour. Steve and I slogged around the area looking for a fire ring. Every spot that looked like it could work was under water. Between the rainfall and melting snow, there was so much water in the area that large pools formed in just about every flat space available. After about 45 minutes of searching, we finally found a place. I set up on a very wet slab of granite, hoping most of the water would run around my tent rather than under it. We heroically got a smoldering fire going, and tucked in for an early night.
The next morning, we woke to clear skies. However, everything I owned seemed to be soaked. Even my down sleeping back was wet on the outside, worrying me about warmth for the next cold night if it soaked through. We sat for a few minutes debating whether to push on, or just abandon and head back to the car. I was tired, wet, and worried about the difficult water crossings ahead. What finally swayed me was the discovery that my right boot was completely separating from the sole. This did not bode well for three more days of rough travel, much of it cross country. Time to head back to the car.
Thus, with heavy hearts we repeated the terrain of day one. I tied some twine around my boot to hold it together and we climbed back up to Piute Pass from the west. Given that we had extra time to get back to the car, we stopped and took in a few beautiful wildflower displays on the western side of the pass.
While we didn’t get to see the glory of Evolution Valley, it was beautiful country nonetheless. Even though it is always difficult when you don’t reach your goals, we still enjoyed a night out in the wilderness, 22 miles of challenging hiking, and some high elevation August wildflowers. Failed trip? Maybe. But it is hard to bemoan getting some solitude out in the natural world. It does much to replenish my soul, even when the going is tough.
On a trip to Ontario Canada a while back, I was able to spend some time photographing some of the area’s local birds, knowing that many of what I found there would be new species to me. I quickly found a few local residents, but as my time was short, I wasn’t able to get all of them without man-made elements in the frame.
The first such local was an eastern kingbird. He was perched right next to a country road, at perfect eye level with my lens, which was resting on a bean bag sitting in an open window. Often bean bags are the best supports from which to shoot from a vehicle, especially if you want the opportunity to shoot out both sides of the car. Often Kerry is kind enough to drive slowly (and as quietly as possible) down country roads while I keep the back seat to myself and move back and forth between the rear windows as required.
I usually try to capture birds in more natural environments, but there were no trees nearby, there was a perfect distant background, and I had no time to wait for a better perch.
The second bird I photographed in the same area (and yes, perched on a similar wire fence to the first bird) was a female bobolink. I saw several males in the area as well, but they stayed farther from the road and I didn’t get any worthwhile photos of them. It is always difficult identifying female species as the coloring can be quite different than the males. Since males typically have more differentiating colors, species are usually described using the males’ attributes instead of the females. To identify female birds, I often troll through hundreds of photos after guessing at the species, or at least narrowing down the family of bird.
I also got some decent photos of a mute swan, and finally without distracting “hand of man” elements! Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia, but have established sizable populations in the coastal areas of the Great Lakes. I felt lucky to see one in the wild, as I’d never find one on the west coast of the US.
My last bird for the day was not a new species for me, but who can’t marvel at a beautiful osprey in flight? The local area had erected several nesting towers to encourage the birds to raise their young here. This osprey had chicks in the nest, and gave me lots of great flight shots as it flew to and from the nest.
Here the osprey is perched at the edge of its nesting tower, looking majestic.
It is always fun to travel to new areas for nature photography. While landscape photography dictates that you continually visit new areas, bird and wildlife photography can often be done closer to home. Closer to home, you often have much more time with an animal, but with traveling, nothing beats the thrill of seeing what’s around the next corner.