Monday, December 15, 2008

The Stars of Midway Atoll

By far the Stars of Midway Atoll are the albatross. Both Laysan and the endangered Black-footed Albatross nest and rear their young on the three islands. They literally take over every available inch of ground space. Traveling around the roads in a golf cart can put you into a stand-off with an albatross... luckily they don't seem to find the hard roads as comfortable as the grass, weeds and sand so they rarely stand their ground on the road. There were a few occasions when I had to get out and give a little push to get a stubborn bird to move over.

The courtship dances are amazing to watch. There are a least 25 different moves the birds make when they dance with their mate. The dances of the Black-footed are subtly different from the Laysan. One wrong step and the mate will loose interest so it pays to practice. I saw many groups of non-breeding juveniles dancing together trying to get all the steps down.

The bill clacking and squeaking cry's of the albatross make a wonderful music. I found that I am missing it since I've been home. It's much harder to fall asleep to the sound of cars than it is to the sound of happy albatross.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Birds, Birds and more Birds!

Midway is one of those special places where the birds have no fear of humans. White Terns flit just above your head, Bonin Petrels occasionally use you to break their plummet at night, Laysan Albatross are fond of untying shoe laces and Red-footed Boobies cruise by to check you out. For a photographer it is a dream... but don't mistake the abundance and willingness of subjects for easy photography! There are times when the birds are so thick it's almost impossible to get a clean background. It takes a bit of ingenuity, a willingness to crawl and a lot of patience but the reward is pretty amazing.

Midway Atoll

Midway Atoll is located at the Northwestern-most end of the Hawaiian Islands chain, midway... between Japan and the United States mainland.

The first recorded visit to Midway Atoll occurred in 1859 by Captain N.C. Brooks of the Hawaiian Bark Gambia.

In 1903 President Roosevelt put the island in control of the US Navy. They cleared the island and turned it over to the Pacific Cable Company.

The first cable message to travel around the w
orld went through Midway Island on the 4th of July 1903. It took 9 minutes.

In 1935 Midway became a playground for the rich and famous when the Pan American World Airways set up the Trans-Pac
ific Flying Clipper Seaplane service.

In 1941 the Navy moved in. In June of 1942 the historic Battle of Midway was waged between the US and Japan. This battle and the heavy losses by the Japanese is considered to be the turning point in the War in the Pacific.

In 1988 the Battle FOR Midway began. It has been a long journey from Military base to National Wildlife refuge, Battle of Midway National Memorial and the window to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Today Midway is host to well over 2 million sea birds as well as the Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. The Atoll and islands enclosed in the protective reef have been closed to tourists since 2001. This year it has been reopened and permits were issued for the Oceanic Society to conduct educational tours. I was lucky enough to visit the Atoll just this past week with the Oceanic Society. It was nothing short of amazing. Stay tune
d for the resaons I fell in love with Midway and her islands....

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bears aren't the only critters

While they may be the main attraction, Polar Bears are not the only white critters up north.

The lovely Willow Ptarmigan, the Arctic Hare and the Arctic Fox all shed their brown coats in favor of the concealing winter white.

It can be hard to spot these little gems as they blend so perfectly with their surroundings but the minute you see a moving snow bank... you know you are onto something. Personal Favorite: The Arctic Fox

Friday, November 14, 2008

I love winter!!!!!!

It doesn't get much better than this! Just back from Churchill, Manitoba where I spent five wonderful nights sleeping on the tundra with some magnificent animals. The accommodations were rustic, a train style bunk bed with barely enough room to sit up but the view from my tiny window every morning made me smile.

Polar bears are typically loners. They roam the ice flows looking for seals to eat and rarely run into other bears. Yet, every fall the southern most population of polar bears gather near Churchill to wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze and provide them with a hunting ground.

The younger bears often rough house and tumble while the older bears sleep and conserve energy. All of the bears check the ice as it forms and prepare their systems to eat again. They dig up kelp and chew and chew. Researchers think the kelp provides iodine and perhaps beneficial bacteria which helps to restart the bears digestive systems. One thing is obvious... it gets things moving right along.

A great organization that is working with the bears is Polar Bears International. Check out their website at: http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Winter is here

Winter is the time to dive in Northern California. It might be cold but storms clear out the dead kelp leaving behind cathedral columns stretching to the surface. The visibility is amazing and the sunshine on the kelp is magical. So... we have a few weeks left before we hit prime time. We attempted to dive a couple of weeks ago and experienced surge, waves and the famous 3 foot visibility that leaves cold water divers shaking our heads and asking, "Why am I freezing my butt off for this??" Today Point Lobos gave us a taste of what's to come.

Unfortunately, I am WAY out of practice with my underwater camera gear. I did say "taste" of what's to come... you can see that the vis wasn't STELLAR by the scatter in the water between me and my dive buddy Enrique. Congratulations on Open Water Dive #8 Enrique! Soon we'll both have cameras out there and we'll turn into horrible dive buddies.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I made a mad dash up to Yosemite with my cousin Jon this week. Jon just graduated from college and is staying with us while he gets to know the Bay area and find a job. It's been a lot of fun showing him around and it's been helping me to reconnect to the city and remember why I love the area so much. Unfortunately, the party is going to end as Jon is going to find a job soon. I couldn't bear the thought of not seeing Tuolumne this season and with November filled up with trips for Polar Bears and Albatross and the pending departure of my new partner in crime... I knew it had to be done sooner than later. So off we went - one night in the Curry Village tent cabins and a wonderful long day cruising the park, watching coyotes and mule deer, smelling the incense cedars and enjoying the warm sun.

I was more focused on just drinking in the majesty that is Yosemite than I was on capturing memorable images. Then I thought of a friend of mine who is always using his fisheye lens to get unique perspectives. I decided it was time to haul mine around too. I think this is my favorite shot from my experimentation with the lens. I love how it makes the sunburst even at f/10!

After we had a picnic in Tuolumne meadows, watched the Northern Harrier Hawk hunting the grasslands, we headed through Tioga Pass to Mono Lake. What a treat - there were TONS of Eared Grebes and ruddy ducks swimming about. I had meant to shoot some landscapes but became engrossed watching these little birds hunt and capture the brine flies.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I managed to make it back out to the Farallon Islands. More importantly, I managed to do it without getting sick. Out of 20 people on the boat, 7 people were down for the count due to sea sickness.

I headed out because I had heard there had been Blue Whale spotted. Unfortunately there was a storm at sea that stired up the currents - the whales had not yet returned to their feeding cycle. We did spot the Blue but at the end of the day and from afar.

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was an encounter with a Leatherback Turtle. If you know me, you know I ADORE turtles... if you don't know me... I ADORE turtles. When I first moved to San Francisco I took a tour to the Farallons and found a Leatherback - we got some photos which I am sure were nothing short of amazing... and the print lab lost the film.

It's pretty rare in life that you get a second chance. Even more rare to have a second chance with an endangered species. So I am counting my blessings on this encounter. The Turtle was so nice and mellow and didn't even care that we drifted along side of him for a time.

The Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish) was the icing on the cake for the day!

Fast moving

I've been remiss in my writing of late - and my processing! I have Spirit Bears and more Grizzly Bears and more images from Elkhorn Slough to share. In the mean time - here are some fast moving metal critters. I wasn't able to stick around for the weekend of Fleet week but I did watch them practice on Friday afternoon. I'll get back to the animals soon!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Wonderful Sunday

I spent the day co-leading a workshop in one of my favorite California shooting locations, Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing with my friend Jim Goldstein. We kept our group small so that everyone had room to spread out and swing their longs lenses on the pontoon boat. Captain Yohn maneuvered us into just the right position for all of our shots and cut the engine often to keep the motor vibrations from affecting our images.

We were extremely fortunate to have a light layer of fog which lifted just enough to create a giant soft box effect. The lack of harsh shadows made it easy to get detail in even the darkest subjects like the Brandt's Cormorant. I love their deep blue eyes.

We were mainly after Sea Otters but I kept being distracted by the abundant birds. There is a large Elegant Tern colony on the end of the rock jetty and we practiced our flight shots with great glee. Three hours on the water passed by in a heart beat and before I knew it, I had several full memory cards and it was time to head home back to shore.

We'll be heading out there again for another workshop this winter with the hopes of capturing some newly born Sea Otter pups. There were a lot of amorous otters around so we are hoping for lots of young this year. Maybe you can join us!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Up Close

One of the great things about the Katmai Brown Bear comes from the abundance of food found in the summer. When they emerge from hibernation they ravenously munch on sedge grass to get their digestive systems up to speed. Then the salmon berries bloom. A good salmon berry crop in the spring bodes well for spring cubs the following year - this year was stellar which gives me just the excuse I needed to head back there next summer. Next, the salmon arrive. The bears adopt a very cool "I'll mind my business if you mind yours" attitude toward people when there is so much for them to eat. That said, never underestimate them. Statistically the chances of being attacked by a brown bear drop by 50% when you add just one person to make a group. Increase the group to three or more people and the likelihood of a bear attack drops to 0%. We had 8 people.

This sow spent quite a bit of time hunting for salmon in the rivers fed by the Serpent Tongue Glacier. She followed the tide and deftly grabbed salmon from the shallows when they least expected it. By sitting quietly in a group several feet back from the rivers edge, we were no more obtrusive in her world than the gulls who swooped in to clean up the remains of her meal after she left. She made several circles in front of us and even laid down to rest and gaze at the fish swimming past. A pretty amazing experience to photograph a bear this big with only a 70-200mm lens.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Working With What You Have

While we had plenty of bears in Katmai, they weren't always cooperative when it can to being on the proper side of the sun. Many times we found ourselves on the wrong side of a deep and fast moving stream while the bears thumbed their noses at us knowing we were only getting silhouettes.

Luckily I knew about a few tricks I had up my own sleeve. I continued to shoot away merrily, not stressing over the light. Making certain that I had good separation between these two young siblings I was able to create an artsy image with an infrared filter. Sometimes you just have to work with what you are given.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


I'm back!!

Just in from a wonderful week in Katmai National Park at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge. Tons of Grizzly Bear, Harbor Seals, Otters, Kittiwakes and Puffin. Over the next little bit I'll be telling you all about it. For now, I need sleep.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Summer Vacation

I realized today that it's been a little while since I've had anything to write about here. It hasn't been for lack of work - I have been furiously keywording, sorting and cataloging images from the past three years in an effort to get a handle on my growing library. It's a long and involved process which wouldn't be nearly so hard had I started years ago. So now it is catch-up time and when better than during the summer down time when the animals are looking scruffy and are being more elusive? I have found it much more easy to part with fuzzy, out of focus shots now than ever before. I am viciously throwing away bad shot after bad shot. In the process I am finding forgotten gems like the cute Black Bear spring cub I shot in Minnesota last year.

I'll be back with more images at the end of August when I go chasing after Kodiak Brown Bears.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bird Photography the easy way...

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel." "As easy as falling off a log." "A slam dunk." "Duck soup." "Easy as pie." "Like shooting ducks on a pond."

Or it's supposed to be. Most people think of wildlife photographers as hardcore hikers who roam the woods alone in a constant quest for the perfect bird or animal. I like a good hike as much as the next guy but I rarely achieve the number of quality images from a hike as I do from a good sit down.

That's right. Hurry up and wait... and wait some more. Birds need three things... Shelter, Food and Water. Provide those and they WILL come. It doesn't always work out as you would expect. I live in San Francisco. I put out four different kinds of seed mix, I have trees in my yard and I bought a pretty bird bath and kept it filled with clean fresh water. Not an easy feat when the raccoons are washing up in it every night. I brought in exactly three species of bird... Pigeons, house sparrows and a single cockatiel.

My friend Bruce has a much better set up down the Penninsula. His ranch is up in the hills with lots of lovely oak trees and chaparral. There is a spring that he uses to keep a drip line feeding two small ponds. They are barely 3 feet by 3 feet but that's big enough for the bird. We set up two doghouse blinds and settle in for the morning.

The hard part - these little guys move FAST. Just getting focus, let alone finding their eyes is hard work. It's hot and the blinds act like a sweat lodge so lots of water is a must. But there is nothing like the thrill of seeing these beautiful birds up close and personal and knowing that you aren't doing a single thing to disturb them.

1. Oak Titmouse, 2. newly fledged Acorn Woodpecker, 3. White-breasted Nuthatch, 4. Spotted Towhee

Friday, June 20, 2008


"Holy F*@&!! There's a HUGE bird over there!!!" I had to shake my head as a group of teenagers in a car drove by... at least they noticed the heron. Two joggers had already run past and not noticed the large bird standing beside the path. Unperturbed by the people passing not more than 5 feet away the heron continued to stalk his intended meal of gopher. The joggers did manage to give me an odd look as I sat in the grass with my back against my car tire, camera in hand.

I am constantly amazed by what people don't seem to see when they are in Golden Gate Park. I've seen foxes run through a meadow while a group of people were playing volleyball, a coyote pouncing on gophers in the bison pen went unnoticed by at least 8 people watching the bison, red-tailed hawks have swooped within 10 feet of joggers wearing iPods and not one head turned...

For every 15 people who seem oblivious to what is in front of their eyes, I get a welcome surprise from someone who does notice. The family on their bikes stopped and watched for a few moments, then each of them pulled out their own small silver camera and began to take images. The youngest boy glanced over at me and saw how I was low to the ground... he bent down and took his shots from a nice low angle while his older brother and father took their shots from higher up. I had to grin to myself... perhaps that young man will become the Frans Lanting or Art Wolfe of his generation... all he has to do is keep on seeing what is in front of him. Here's hoping...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Whale of a Tale

We cruised the Icy Straits on our way back to Juneau after our visit to Glacier Bay National Park. In the distance we saw a Humpback Whale breaching repeatedly so we changed our course to investigate. As we slowed the boat to a standstill in the general area we had seen the whale we heard that unmistakably powerful blow of whale breath. On the starboard, a large whale had surfaced and was slowly cruising past, her breath hung in the air. I noticed a large clump of bull kelp off the forward port side of the boat and suddenly realized that it was moving rather quickly. Just then a tail appeared in the mess and I realized that there was a whale in that kelp. At first it seemed as though the calf was helplessly tangled in the kelp and we wondered if we should attempt to intervene on his behalf. Soon enough it became apparent that he was playing! He disappeared beneath the surface and pushed the kelp upward with his nose, then rolled it around his flipper and finally sliding it down his back to give it a flip with his tail. He did this for about 10 mins before mom finally got impatient. She began slapping the water loudly with her tail. "Ok, enough playing around, we have to go eat!" she seemed to be saying. Like most children... this calf seemed to have selective hearing and ignored her for a while. Then she raised her flipper and slapped the water with it. That got his attention and he left his toy behind to joined her. A few spouts later they were ready to start feeding again and dove in unison. When we saw them next they were swimming away together, the bull kelp floating beside our boat, a discarded toy looking for a new purpose. Perhaps it would become cover for some fish or maybe another calf would find it interesting as it proceeded on it's journey through the Icy Straits.