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.

Friday, June 13, 2008


I did manage to get my Harlequin Ducks in the wild with the help of our awesome mate and skiff captain, Megan. In the town of Baranof there is ONE year round resident, four dogs, one store, two docks, a hotspring, a few bathhouses, a beautiful waterfall and during the summer upwards of 18-20 residents. There are also Harlequin Ducks.

Harlequins love rushing waters and they are quite skiddish when approached from land. Megan maneuvered the skiff between submerged rocks and into the mouth of the waterfall, which was absolutely raging thanks to the spring melt, all the while holding the boat steady enough for me to frame and fire. I can't thank her enough for her efforts to get me the shots I wanted.

It is amazing how much shelter one rock can give, looking at these images you would never know we were battling a huge current caused by the waterfall. The day was cloudy so I was able to avoid harsh shadows and the green Rockweed provided a vibrant background for these birds that I could not have planned better. A great day. Thanks Megan!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Glacier Bay National Park

There are no roads into Glacier Bay National Park, access is by boat or plane only. While many people who visit arrive on large cruise ships and never step foot on the land around the glaciers, there are many who arrive in their own boats or even plan kayak trips up the fjord created by the retreating glaciers. It is an incredibly pristine area that is home to some amazing wildlife.

I entered the Bay on a 120 foot yacht with 18 fellow passengers run by American Safari. We had our own naturalist on board the vessel but we stopped in Bartlett Cove and picked up our own private ranger who acted as our guide. We spent two days cruising the fjords, kayaking, skiffing and hiking and watching the huge cruise boats motor up to a safe vantage point to the glaciers and then turn and motor back out of the park. I felt sorry for the people trapped behind the glass windows on those boats. They didn't get to see the pile of 6 river otters that tumbled out of a cave in front of our skiff, they didn't get to watch the green-wing teal cavorting at the edge of Lamplugh Glacier as we hiked past and I know that the baby mountain goats were just specs in their binoculars if they knew they were there at all. Standing on shore near a 250 foot wall of ice, listening to the glacier groan and crack, smelling the clean fresh air coming off the ice and the cool breeze on my face was incredible. I've already decided that I need to go back next year with a kayak and spend some time camping. Now I just need to find some people who aren't afraid of a few brown bears to go with me... paddling against the wind by yourself can be hard.

In 1794 Glacier Bay wasn't a bay at all. It was an enormous glacier up to 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide and extending over 100 miles into the St Elias mountain range. By 1879 when John Muir visited, that glacier had retreated more than 30 miles. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier had retreated more than 60 miles to the head of Tarr Inlet. As a glacier moves forward it pushes a protective layer of rock and debris in front of it. Once the glacier reached the ocean that layer was washed away and the glacier was doomed to retreat. There are currently 11 tidewater glaciers (glaciers that flow into the ocean) that break off or "calve" into the ocean or fresh water lakes at sea level. The show is spectacular. The broken bergs provide great haul out spots for harbor seals, eagles and arctic terns.