Monday, March 31, 2008

Why do you need so many?

Collection Manager, Jim Dines, shows off some bats

Thursday I visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and was treated to a behind the scenes look at the ornithology and mammalogy departments. Kimball Garrett, Collection Manager, Ornithology and James Dines, Collection Manager, Mammalogy, took us through drawers full of well preserved birds and mammals of all shapes, sizes and colors.

The ornithology collection was started in 1913 with 250 specimens and has grown to more than 104,000 over the years. Mr. Garrett admitted that now a days, most of the birds are donated from zoos and rehabilitation centers and citizens turning in "window kills" rather than full scale collection trips. Each specimen is meticulously preserved with information about the location found, behavior prior to death, stomach contents and a staggering number of measurements.

The Pelt Room

So why do they need so many? Science, that big amorphous entity which encompasses both people and ideas, is constantly evolving, developing new methods and techniques. Every new discovery opens more doors to be explored. Mr. Garrett told us about a newly developed test that is allowing researchers to track migration routes based on contaminants in the tissues of a bird. With access to carefully prepared and cataloged collections like those at the Natural History Museum of LA County, researchers are able to map how migration patterns have changed over a larger period of time thus identifying trends that span further than one human life time.

Collection Manager, Kimball Garrett reads about a yellow-bellied sapsucker

The down side is that the process is destructive. A feather plucked here and there might not seem like much but over the course of 50 years, no more feathers will be left. The challenge is to selectively allow specimens to be used and yet preserve the collection for whatever tests science comes up with in the next 100 years.

My visit was just a little bit creepy but mostly fascinating, educational and inspiring.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers all in a row

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking Time to Get Lost

One of my favorite activities growing up was our Sunday "getting lost" drives through the country. We would all pile into the car and dad would pick a road out of town. At each cross road we would shout out "Go left, Go right" and we would discover new and exciting places. Sometimes we ended up in obscure state parks getting the car stuck in mud bogs and other times we found apple orchards where we could pick more apples than we could possibly eat in weeks.

Yesterday my husband and I packed our dog in the car and headed out on Highway 101 to visit my in-laws in Los Angeles. We have driven this route many times and the highway is very familiar... we stop at all the same gas stations, we eat at the same restaurants and Milo has marked the same trees over and over. This trip we took the time to get lost.

I detoured onto Highway 46 and turned off on a road called Bitterwater Drive. Immediately, the rush of the city, the urgency of the highway melted away. The hills were covered with yellow and orange, the trees were covered with colorful lichen and the sun streamed over the hills setting the grass aglow. Our GPS had no idea where we were and neither did we. It was wonderful! We stopped beside a dry creek bed and Milo raced from the car, sniffing and exploring every nook and cranny. Meadow Larks were singing, bugs were buzzing and the wind was blowing softly. It couldn't have been more peaceful or beautiful and by the time we had found our way back to the highway I felt recharged and relaxed.

I think it's important to take time to get lost, to explore new areas and find those out of way places that are unique and beautiful.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Predator vs. Prey

We had the privileged of photographing from Jean's backyard today and I learned that Jean helps more than just eagles through the cold winter. She also feeds an enormous flock of Grey-crowned Rosy-finch. These tiny birds swarm together and are very skiddish. One false move can send the entire flock into a panicked flight. I watched them soar through the sky as the eagles ignored them. They poured over the roof and descended on the feeders full of sunflower seeds as if they were one large organism.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, a large blur appeared in their midst and the flock disbursed, scattering it's members left and right. I didn't think any bird could be faster than these tiny little finch but I was wrong. A Sharp-shinned Hawk had found the flock and was determined to make a meal of at least one of these finches. It happened so quickly that I can't be sure if the hawk was successful or not. A local passing by said he had not seen a hawk out on the spit in the 8 years that he had lived there.

When compared to the eagles he seemed so tiny and yet, he was just as fierce a hunter as the eagles. I feel very lucky to have seen this hawk let alone to have the pictures to prove it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Eagles of Homer, Alaska

Located on Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska is the southern-most town on the Alaska Highway system. Despite the recent uproar about feeding, Homer is still the premier location for viewing Bald Eagles up close and personal. Jean Keene aka the Eagle Lady, feeds the eagles from December to April in an effort to help them make it through the hard winter months. Though she is in her 80's, she is out there every day, rain, snow or shine.

I had no idea what to expect when I flew in from Anchorage. It was a clear day and the mountains were covered in snow. I made it to my hotel on the famous Homer Spit and watched the setting sun as it lite up the mountains and made them glow. Long-tailed ducks, Glaucous gulls, Common goldeneye, sea otters and of course, eagles, could be seen right out the window of the Lands End Resort.

This morning was a different story. A thick cloud cover rolled in overnight and the entire spit was covered in a layer of white snow. It was beautiful... beautiful and COLD. Bundled in my trusty thermals I headed out to the beach to photograph the eagles for the first time. In the low light shutter speeds were too slow to keep up with the birds as they soared and swooped so I pushed my ISO up to 1600 and found my shutter speed. It was amazing to see these enormous and majestic birds flying and perching.

Once the feeding was over the birds dispersed though a few remained on the beach, happy to digest while they watched us crawl ever so slowly closer to their position. One eagle in particular was extremely accommodating and posed for wide angle shots, close head shots and mid-range full body photos. He seemed to know exactly when I had enough of one pose and he would switch to another. I don't think a professional model could have done a better job. Once he was board (or perhaps when he realized his performance wasn't going to get him any more fish) he retired to a perch high on a rooftop to preen and nap.

I can't wait to discover what tomorrow will bring!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Call of the Wildflowers

"The Wildflowers are coming, the Wildflowers are coming! " The call went out and as more and more Newspapers and websites reported spectacular sightings the more antsy I became until Wednesday, when I threw all my lenses in my car and took off driving. I went straight to Lake Elsinore where I was greeted by hills so full of poppies they looked as if someone had spilled orange paint. A great resource is the Desert USA webpage: http://desertusa.com/wildflo/ca.html

The best items that I remembered to bring along were a reflector/diffuser set a friend gave me (THANK YOU!), my dogs pillow and my trusty ground pod. I wish I had remembered to throw in a couple of plamps to hold the diffuser but I made due with some moves that would have made a contortionist proud. If you go make certain you have a good high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle. I love my Hybrid Escape but there were one or two spots that it just did not want to drive up - the combinations of loose shale, steep slope and no good way to get momentum going foiled me twice but I found other ways around. I saw one person on an ATV and a pair water skiing on Box Canyon Lake, both of whom looked at me as if I were a crazy person (which I am sure I looked the role). Otherwise I had the entire place to myself. I crawled around on my hands and knees, (here's where the pillow came in handy, all the loose rocks hurt my elbows until I pulled out Milo's pillow - I'm sure he'll forgive me once he explores all the new smells).

After spending the day achieving a spectacular sunburn and taking more California Poppy photos than one person should be allowed to possess, I headed off to Joshua Tree to see what the "desert bloom" was all about. I've never visited Joshua Tree before but one of my life goals is to visit every single national park in the United States.

The Joshua Trees were all in bloom and looking spectacular. What surprised me the most was what I discovered when I stepped out of the car to take a hike among the giant boulders. Everywhere I looked I found tiny yellow and white flowers and sometimes a pretty purple thrown in for good measure.

As I drove further south through the park the flowers grew more and more abundant and diverse. Even the cholla were beautiful though who ever nick-named them Teddy Bear cactus never kneeled on the spines before... OUCH! Trust me, even if the ground near a cholla looks safe, it isn't. the spines are everywhere.

After whirl-wind tour I am home to pack for Alaska where the snow and Eagles await. I had a brief taste of spring and I know I will be more than ready to enjoy it when I get home in a week. Until then, the snow pants are packed and ready for service.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Falkland Trip: Sea Lion Island

Silver Teal
Sea Lion was an incredible place to end our trip. Be prepared to walk everywhere on this island... we were able to hitch a ride to the end of the island and walk back on one day but the rest of the time we hoofed it (no offense to the sheep). It really helps you decide what photo equipment is REALLY necessary when you know you have to carry it over uneven tussac and spongy peat bogs. The best day I had, I slung my 300mm on my back and threw an extender in my pocket with a few spare cards and headed out. I overheard a few guests saying that they weren't going to bother with the other end of the island because there was so much going on by the lodge. I feel sorry for them because I know they missed a lot.

The first afternoon my friend Jeff and I hiked cross country (well, he hiked; I stumbled, tripped, swore and twisted my ankle more than once - staying on top of those little tussac mounds is trickier than it sounds) to Long Pond. Along the way we found an insanely cooperative snipe... I mean really... a head shot of a snipe???!!! When we got to the pond it appeared to be empty with the exception of a few upland geese resting by the shore. Appearances are often deceiving.
The Crazy Snipe

When we arrived at the far shore I saw my first silvery grebe, then another and another. They were so tiny I had missed seeing them with my cursory scan of the lake. Chiloƫ wigeon, speckled and silver teal and Patagonian crested duck were also hiding in the reeds around the lake.
Southern Giant Petrel
At the far end of the island are some amazing cliffs where you can watch the giant southern petrels fly past at eye level. They look prehistoric to me and HUGE.

The island has quite a few two-banded plovers (named for the two black bands on their neck and chest) and I was lucky enough to find a nest with a chick and an egg. Mom sat on the nest while I ate my lunch nearby and seemed more annoyed with the tussac birds than with my presence.

Two-banded plover on the beach

Back at the lodge we found more southern elephant seals, gentoos galore, a juvenile king penguin, skua and magellanic penguins. Another woman in our party found a rock cormorant colony and I explored a petrel colony though I kept quite a distance from the petrels as they will often abandon their nests if disturbed.

Yet again, I found myself wishing for more time (and a stronger set of knees) on this amazing island. I am dreaming of going back and know that someday, somehow I will get my week pl
us in each of these locations and many more that I didn't get to visit. Pebble, Bleaker, the Jason's are all out there and calling to me. I'm told that the South gets under your skin, one trip is never enough and I believe them.
Reeds at Long Pond

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Falklands Trip: Saunders Island

Hopping along, Rockhopper penguin, Saunders Island
Saunders is a HUGE island (30,000 acres) in comparison to the other two we visited; Carcass and Sea Lion. We stayed at the Settlement (unfortunately another group had already claimed the container at the Neck) which was clean and comfortable. Seven people to one shower actually worked out OK as there was plenty of hot water for all of us. The sheep begging for scraps at the back door in the mornings was a homey touch. We arrived on the island in time to spend the afternoon at the Albatross and Rockhopper col
ony. The exposed cliffs offered wonderful backdrops of deep blue ocean for stunning portraits of the Albatross.

Black-browed Albatross Portrait

The following day we were scheduled to travel out to the Neck but the weather had other ideas. The wind picked up to incredible levels. We attempted to go out to a nearby pond for the black-necked swans but they were too skiddish to get near. I did manage a few shots of a White-tufted grebe. In the afternoon we finally braved a nearby beach. The wind was so intense that even though my pockets were zipped, when I returned home they were full of sand. The juvenile magellanic penguins huddled on the beach with their backs to the sand, longing to swim in the ocean.

Magellanic Penguins braving the sandstorm

The next day we were back to our wonderful weather and we headed out to the Neck immediately after breakfast. On the drive out we encountered a very cooperative red-backed buzzard. One day was not nearly enough to explore all the wonderful nooks and crannies in the cliffs and the beach was so huge that every penguin had an enormous expanse to themselves. I found a
magellanic oystercatcher nest, watched the rockhoppers surfing the waves and cuddled up to a family of gentoo. I wish I could have spent a week there or even longer but our final island was waiting for us and so we said goodbye.

Gentoo colony at the Neck

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Falkland Trip: Carcass Island

Black-throated finch were abundant on Carcass

Carcass Island definitely spoiled me for the rest of the trip. We stayed at the home of Rob and Loraine McGill who own the entire island. I soon discovered that the island was not named for some sinister dead bodies but rather the HMS Carcass which surveyed the island in 1766. My room was anything but grim and came complete with a set of Hardy Boy books which made it so cozy and inviting. We had amazing breakfasts, they packed us excellent, albeit HUGE lunches, afternoon tea and cakes were always around and warm, filling dinners. It was hard to tear myself away from the charm of our hosts to go out and photograph. Luckily there was an amazing variety of birds to draw me out.

Female kelp goose on rocky beach

Before breakfast there was always time to catch the beautiful morning light on the beach. Kelp geese, speckled teal, Falkland steamer ducks, black oyster catchers, tussac birds, snipe and night heron wandered the each without a care in the world. After breakfast Rob piled us into the trusty Land Rover and drove us to the other side of the island where we were delighted to find a large king cormorant colony (also known as an imperial shag).

King cormorant coming in for a landing

Another day we explored the rocky shore near the landing strip. There I found a mad, dive bombing skua, a colony of kelp and dolphin gulls complete with adorable fluffy chicks, Magellanic Penguins and my favorites... Southern Elephant Seals. I watched the juveniles sparing in the water, practicing the skills they would need as they get older.

Southern elephant seals sparring

A short boat ride took us to West Point Island where we spent the day in the largest Black-browed Albatross colony in the Falklands. Interspersed with these huge birds were the tiny and comical rockhopper penguins. As I huddled in the tussac grass to get out of the wind that threatened to blow me off the cliff face, I was literally run over by more than one of these silly birds. They alternated between being curious and just down right indignant. As we crossed back to Carcass Island we watched the sea boil with Albatross, Petrels, Cormorants and dolphin as they all fed on the abundant fish. I could have stayed right there for two weeks and not seen everything or explored every nook.

Instead, after a few days we moved on to Saunders Island... we were not disappointed with what we found there!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Falkland Trip: Stanley, East Falkland

Dirt road leading from "Camp" to "Town"
I've always loved the ocean and have had grand dreams of shipwrecks and pirates, of lonely lost shores and wind-swept coasts. As a child I read every copy of National Geographic I could get my hands on, watched every episode of The Wild Kingdom and worshiped Jacques Cousteau. I wanted to travel to the far flung reaches of the earth, meet the creatures that live in those remote locations and somehow share them with everyone I can reach. Now that I am an adult... I take every opportunity I can get.

Almost two years ago I was given the opportunity to go to the Falkland Islands. The waiting was the hardest part, the closer the date came the slower time seemed to pass. Finally, just after Christmas, I began the journey; SFO to Miami, to Santiago, Chile and then on to the islands.

View of Stanley from FIGAS plane

The Falklands are made of two larger island, East and West Falkland and many surrounding islands both small and large. Stanley, which is the capital and only city, serves as home for the vast majority of Falklands 2,379 residents. Since there is only one city, it's called "Town" and everything else is called "Camp". Many families live in settlements around camp and make their revenue through sheep ranching. In 1986 a conservation and management zone was established around the islands shifting the economy to marine fisheries rather than wool. Tourism is playing a growing role in the Falklands economy. Falklands Tourism

For now there are no huge resorts or Club Med owned Islands. Conservation is held in high esteem and some islands are even off limits to people entirely to allow the birds to breed without interference from man... though many of the birds we encountered couldn't care if we were there or not.
Lady Elizabeth wreck in the harbor
Whalebone arch outside church
Cape Pembroke Lighthouse

Our first stop was Stanley and I could have spent weeks just exploring town. Every direction you look there is something interesting, wrecks in the harbor, lighthouses, whalebone arches, lawn gnomes, colorful doors, pet sheep in some front yards and beautiful lupine blooms. For 5 pounds you can rent the key to the Cape Pembroke lighthouse and climb to the top for the spectacular view. I highly recommend making time to get out there. All too soon we were boarding a tiny FIGAS plane on our way to Carcass Island...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

2008 Catch-up

Welcome to my adventures!

This year got off to a bang with a wonderful New Year spent on Carcass Island, Falklands, thanks to the hospitality of Rob and Loraine McGill. Carcass has never had a rat or cat problem so the island has amazing biodiversity including the diminutive Cobb's Wren which is the first species to loose out when rats invade an island. I'll write more about the Falklands and it's amazing birds later.

I returned home for a few weeks to do laundry and catch up on some much needed sleep before I headed out to Florida for my grandmothers 90th birthday. If it weren't for the tolerant birds Florida would be too hot and buggy for me. But the birds keep bringing me back. This time I went to the dump and found a few fun surprises including this Loggerhead Shrike.

After Florida I trekked up to Montana to visit some terrific animal actors and their trainers at Animals of Montana and to spend a day in Yellowstone National Park. I love to photograph in the snow, I think because I don't have to shovel it. On this trip I captured my first images of wolves in the wild. It was an amazing experience made even more intense by the recent delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species list. I hope that they continue to have the chance to thrive as they are truly inspiring animals.

I'm back home again, paying bills and drooling over thoughts of the wildflower bloom in Southern California. I'm not ready for Spring yet... the snow is still calling me and so my next stop will be Homer, Alaska to photograph the famous Eagles and to meet eagle-icon, Jean Keane.

Stay Tuned!