Monday, September 24, 2012

Free Flight

Sandhill Cranes in the Pattern                            24 September 2012

The Sandhill Cranes are athletes of the winds, experienced airmen, as social as pilots at a pancake breakfast.  With winds brisk and from the west, all inbound traffic used a very wide-open "Runway 27".  Because it is an uncontrolled airspace, all pilots called back and forth on open communication, sharing a commonly understood frequency.  Formation flying was popular among the thousands of participants.  Most pilots used a very long downwind and turned an abrupt short final.  This pattern was easy to learn, and many experienced pilots showed their young the best ways to go about the approach.    Enjoy the air show!  This is one of nature’s finest.

Two days in a row, Sandhill Crane photography has been simply amazing. The waves of birds have taken my breath away.  I am hopelessly lost to their magic.  Knowing a little about how flight works, I have been able to get where the birds tend to set up for their landings.  I used nothing more than a Canon 300mm lens to get this close.  If only I could give you the whooshing of wings, the contact calls, the triumphant bugles, the warmth of the setting sun.  The pictures can take you part way there, but you will need to make this experience your own some day.  Crex Meadows is a wildlife watcher’s dream. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nervous Energy

The Beauty of an Autumn Migration                23 September 2012

Today winds blew strongly from the west. Yesterday they crashed in from the North with an Arctic chill.  I awoke at 2 AM and, curious about the frost, I put on shoes and wandered to the back yard to pick the last tomatoes by flashlight.  Each tomato was covered in a thin layer of hoar frost, and the grass sparkled in my artificial light.  Back to bed, I curled up to dream of what adventures I might find on my day off.  I awoke with butterflies in my stomach, restless.  Just maybe, we ornithologists can sense the nervous energy of a good Fall migration.

This evening, I ventured out to find migratory birds in the wetlands of Crex Meadows.  I hadn’t seen Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in a very long time, and I was surprised at how lush the vegetation was.  Despite the early fall colors, the wetland plants were just beginning to lose their grip on photosynthetic productivity.  Wild rice, sedges, cattails, and reed grasses had grown in lush, dense stands over the summer.  The drought had created rich mudflats that were now teaming with Wilson’s Snipe, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden Plover, and Pectoral Sandpipers.   While autumn migrants dashed about and green gave way to yellow ochre, the smartweed bloomed a vibrant pink.    Harris' Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows added mysterious, quavering sounds to the brushy edges of the wetlands.  Just a few feet away, a Wilson's Snipe foraged in the mud, probing deeply with its exaggerated bill, oblivious to my hunkered, lurking form.  I sat in lush grasses, my feet at the edge of the mud, taking in the Autumn spectacle.  From all directions, life bustled with that nervous energy.

I wondered how the Sandhill Crane migration was coming along, and I was thrilled to hear their ancient calls echoing from the distance.  As the sun reached the horizon, wave after wave of Sandhill Cranes approached the largest refuges of flooded marsh for their evening roost.  Thousands of cranes assembled with a breathtaking din of rattles, bugles and unison calling.  Gentle, trilling calls of the young of the year blended into the soundscape, while Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, and Trumpeter Swans played the harmony.

Summer has ended.  I welcome the cold chill of evening and the spectacular skies that our Northern high pressure fronts create.  The “dog days” now gone, we can share the icy evening air with thousands of feathered travelers.  It is time to make art.

All images were made with a Canon 40D and 300mm f4 Canon lens.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Among the Old Growth

Walking in a Strange Land, Senses Aware and Open                   August 12, 2012

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is more than 1,800 miles from my home, and it is a world apart from most of what I know.   A day along the Pacific Coast’s tide pools and heading inshore to the Hoh River’s temperate rainforest for the evening hours is a spectacular and sensory-satisfying experience.  No matter where on Earth, the essence of a day in nature is to be surrounded by the beauty of life, to have variety of living forms behaving naturally and in close proximity.  To move slowly, to blend with the surroundings, and to see life approaching and surrounding without worry is to soothe to the pulse of your environment.

Morning began with a farewell to the Quinnalt rainforest’s giant trees and a voyage from sunny skies to sea fog.  We arrived on the Pacific Coast and headed to the National Park Service’s “Beach 4” in search of tide pools.  As the Pacific waters crashed into the beach and rocky crags, fog lifted and drifted into the forest.  We sauntered along in salty air and made our way to some very famous tide pools.   A variety of anemone, sea stars, barnacles, hermit crabs, isopods, and fish kept us busy and marveling.  Having done no homework whatsoever, I took the risk and ran my calloused fingers along the tentacles of an anemone, feeling the “sticky” sensations of the animal’s stinging cells.  The anemone pulled tentacles back toward its simple mouth, and my skin began to feel strangely hot.  The sea stars, rough with a protruding endoskeleton, seemed immobile until we looked closely at their delicate tube feet, prodding and moving slowly along the rocks. 

While the ocean slams against the rocks and tides shape and reshape the sands and pools each and every day, the whole area seems delicate and precarious.  Some of the bowls, so full of life, are formed of sand on nearly 270 degrees of a circle, framed only in part by rock.  One missed step, and the sand collapses into the bowl, making life miserable for a mature anemone.    Small kelps form rich forests of life with strange crustaceans darting in and out of cover.  Though everything seems familiar to me in its rough taxonomic position, every species here is new to me.  A flurry of activity, a small flock of Northwestern Crows erupts in nasal “Caaah caaah caaah” calls, reminding me that even the birds here are different.   With less fog, perhaps I could even see a whale.  I am as alien to this place as the gently rocking tentacles of anemone are to me.  

As the sea fog lifts and heads inland, so does an Olympic Peninsula traveler.  We headed up the Hoh River basin and made camp within the Olympic National Park boundaries.  By afternoon, we had played in the ice-cold glacial waters of the Hoh, and, by early evening, we had found our way to the cobbles of the river flats.  I’m not sure why, but a wise old soul had stopped by our camp to tell us a secret about elk.  We followed him to a small, brushy area amid sand flats, cobbles and giant dead-fallen trees.  The elk were coming to feed.

Within minutes, we found ourselves at the limits of what the park allows, a mere thirty meters from the elk.  But we weren’t approaching them.  Unhindered, they closed in on us from two sides.  We stood, quietly, respectfully, peacefully, enjoying the antics of the herd.  Calves sought their mothers, cows fled a young bull and eagerly found the company of each other and a larger, older bull.   A small spike bull seemed to be the much-loved and non-threatening friend to all.  Elk passed by us, unnoticed until the last second as they crept along the opposite sides of gigantic fallen trees, and, when impeded, they utilized graceful power to bound over the logs to the other side.  

For as long as I can remember, mutualism has been taught to me...and I have taught it to a relationship wherein both species benefit one another.  This is romantically portrayed as a peaceful, caring transaction between individuals.  Now, having watched the elk, my knowledge of this is deeper, more realistic, and a bit more comical.  As a cowbird attempted repeatedly to alight upon a cow elk, the elk repeatedly shooed it away with wiggling, jittery skin.  Finally, she snapped her head around and tried to bite the bird.  The cowbird reluctantly flew to the ground and began foraging by the cow elk's feet.

The Roosevelt Elk is a smaller subspecies and very unique to the old growth temperate rainforest.  As much as politicians have waged war over preserving the old growth forests, and as much as the Northern Spotted Owl has been vilified for “stopping jobs,” we mustn’t forget that important populations of wild salmon, entire plant communities, and these majestic elk are as dependent upon the old growth as the embattled owl. Single species conservation doesn't work.  Conservation does the work of protecting entire ecosystems and must work at all levels, from microhabitat research to battles against climate change.  There is great depth to nature's web.  

As the setting sun passed behind the mountain, we settled into the lap of luxury and just, simply, watched.

My usual dynamic duo: Canon 40D and 300 f4 IS Canon lens, Gitzo basalt tripod and ball head.  My usual sidekick: Canon Powershot SX230HS.   My usual support: Cindy, Zach and Megan!