Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Palouse Photo Trip Part II

Okay. I admit it. It was a mistake to try and pick up the thread of this post more than a month later. I have not had much time here in Europe to continue sharing the Palouse trip story.

So I wil at least share some of the highlights...

Phu and I headed out on the next day into the rolling wheat field country. It was a new photographic experience for both of us, as I mainly focus on wildlife and he on portraits and urban landscapes.

The stark panorama out there was full of fascinating textures, colors, shapes and patterns. It was a great learning experience for me to work on capturing the more abstract beauty of a landscape so strongly influenced by the hands and machinery of human beings.

Generally, when out in the field I look through the landscape to spot wildlife. It was different for me to look at the rolling hills strictly for their own beauty. It was a great opportunity for me to focus on the artistic side of nature photography.

In some places, the landscape was nothing but the sensuous curves of golden hills rolling in every direction. The cut wheat traced with so many lines created an amazing texture, at times like the furry body of some great animal.

We visited 2 buttes which stood out like lone sentinels above the low lying landscape of the wheat fields. The first - Kamioc Butte state park - was closed due to the extreme fire danger created by the dry conditions on its forested slopes. Steptoe Butte, to the North and West, was less forested and thankfully was open to visitors. We had an amazing 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape from up on top. We took our time driving slowly and stopping many times on the way up the butte.

I could not help but seek out some wildlife while taking landscape shots on the butte. In rocky alcove, I poked around looking for snakes and other animals. I was delighted to find a family of rock wrens feeding and exploring the same area. One of them became very curious and approached me for a closer look.
The butte was a spectacular spot, and geologically quite unique. It was formed out of a great mound of quartzite rock over 400 million years old!

The photographic prospects of the Palouse hills were immense, and we did not feel we had exhausted their potential when we headed back to camp for the day.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Palouse Photo Trip

My friend Phu, and I made a trip out to the semi-arid landscapes of eastern Washington. We were out there for a total of 2 and half days and 2 nights. Our main focus was to get to know and photograph the wild canyons and rolling wheat fields that make up the Palouse region. Here are some highlights from that trip...

We headed out of Seattle around noon and drove east, up and over the beautiful Cascade mountains. Once we dropped into the lower sagebrush country, we crossed the Columbia river on its way North to B.C. and continued nearly another 200 miles before arriving at Palouse Falls State Park. Just before we reached the park, however, we saw a big storm moving towards us from out of the southeast. On the front of the storm, there was this great wave. It was a dark brown cloud that stood out against the deep blue-gray of the thunderstorm. It moved swiftly in front of us and quickly covered the road as it moved West. It looked intimidating and I was uncertain whether driving through it was wise, so we pulled over. It was our first photo opportunity of the trip. We both jumped out and got buffeted by the storm winds. The brown wave was actually a dust storm that had been kicked up by the intense winds on the front of thunderstorm.

Storms can create an incredible interplay of light, shadow and color. It is difficult to capture the exact intensity of a storm on camera. There are somethings about being in a storm that can not be captured by words or images. The smell, the wind in your face, and the electric intensity in the air.

Both of us thought this was a dramatic start to our trip, and a perhaps positive omen hinting at the incredible things to come.

The dust storm passed us quickly and the road was was clear again, so we jumped in the car and headed to the campsite. Our base camp for the next few days would be Palouse Falls State Park. The thunderstorm ended literally as soon as we arrived in camp. As we set up our tent and started on dinner, the passing storm was lit up by the setting sun creating an amazing display of color over the shrub-steppe country above the rim of the Palouse falls canyon.
As the sun disappeared, the colors faded and the first stars started showing up in the deep blue of the evening sky. We finished our dinner of okra gumbo and catfish, and decided to try something new...

That night, Phu and I tried our hand at astrophotography. This was a first for both of us, and it was a process of learning by trail and error. We walked out on a dirt trail away from the campground where our neighbors lantern was shinning brightly into the darkness of the night. When we walked up and over a small hill, we found the perfect spot to set up our tripods and start shooting pictures.

To explain how odd this was for both of us, let me give an example of what taking pictures is usually like. We walk up to a subject during the day and shoot, often at speeds between 1/100 to 1/1000 of a second. For the astrophotography, we set up the cameras and took photos that took 8 to 15 minutes! Shooting photos of stars was a patient activity. Waiting for 10 minutes for the camera to take a single photo, after pressing the shutter button is strange.

Our lack of experience with it created some rather funny moments. Initially, it was difficult for us to get a single photo to show any part of the landscape or part of the sky. They kept showing up black, as if no image was recorded. When we finally saw the sky and landscape show up on the LCD display, we celebrated with a cheer of "We have an image!" Both Phu and I are use to taking hundreds or sometimes thousands of frames in a matter of a week or two. So, it was rather hilarious for us to be so excited over a single image.

Once we figured out how to set up the shots, our success rate went up. As did the moon. Up to this point, the only hint of the moon had been a faint glow to the northeast. Once the moon was up, there was some concern that the stars would not show up in our photos. It is true, that they were somewhat less visible. Yet, it seemed that the presence of the moon mostly improved our shots.

Our first astrophotography attempts, more specifically photos of stars were met with some success. To our utter surprise, we realized we could capture the movement of the stars in a matter of minutes. The frame on the left was shot in between 8 and 10 minutes of time. Already, you can see clearly the star trails showing the movement of the stars across the sky above the Palouse landscape. The light of the moon helped to illuminate the grassy ridge and telephone pole seen in the photo. Our night was over around midnight.

The following morning we got up bright an early, just before 6 am to take photos of the sunrise and the light it created on the canyon. The sunrise did not have the brilliant color display put on by the sunset of the evening before, but it created a great glow about the grasses and plants on the canyon rim. It also create extremely strong contrast of light and shadow within the canyon. This created a great sense of drama, and to me it was especially underlined in the way it isolated certain parts of the canyon relative to other ones.

There is a trail on the inside of the rim of the canyon, which only the brave and adventurous souls dare take on. It is very narrow and winding, with a very steep drop off on one side. The drop would be well over 200 feet to the canyon bottom below. The shadows framed this trail in an incredible way that to my eyes made it appear as if the trail was wandering along the edge of the world. Over the edge was a nameless, bottomless void which swallowed up any thing and anyone who might fall into its cavernous depths...

We spent over an hour photographing the light, the landscape and the sunrise. As our photo session came to an end before breakfast, I spotted one of the creatures that call this canyon home. It was a powerful bird of prey, and by its markings and begging calls I could tell it was a juvenile. This particular species of bird also happens to be the fastest bird in the word, clocked at well over 200 mph in a dive...

It was a peregrine falcon! This particular juvenile bird actually flew out of the canyon, and landed relatively close to us as we were walking back to our campsite. It perched on the rim of the canyon, and I was so thrilled to get to see one so close and it stayed in the same spot for over 10 minutes! I shot around 85 frames of this bird, as it looked around at things, preened, stared at me and as it begged its parents who flew around down in the canyon below to bring it some breakfast.
I don't think I can easily express the joy and honor I feel at getting to share space with such a magnificent creature. This is an animal of incredible grace, speed and power in flight which has no peer in the animal kingdom. It is a predator not only of the wild canyons of the West, but also the urban canyons found in between and on top of the great urban skyscrapers in our major cities. Though most people who live in big cities don't see them nor much evidence of them, except perhaps the occasional pile of pigeon feathers in a city park or back lot that these bird-eating predators leave behind.

To think, we almost lost this species not so long ago when DDT was used widely as a insecticide in the United States. The chemicals created havoc in the reproductive systems of the birds, affecting their eggs. When the eggs were laid, they would quickly develop cracks due to their shells being too thin. This made falcon numbers plummet and cause a huge mortality rate: virtually none of the chicks survived in the wild. It was only delisted from Endangered status on the Endangered Species List in August of 1999.

I told my friend Phu that if I did not get a chance to take photos of any more wild life on this trip, I would be satisfied because the falcon encounter was so special to me.

The falcon eventually flew down into the canyon to join its parents.

At this point, we were also thinking about our stomaches. Once back at base camp, we sat down to eat some bacon and warm oatmeal for breakfast. Then, we packed up our gear and headed out for a drive to seek out some very different landscapes from the canyon, but ones which are also very much a part of the Palouse region.

More on that in the next installment...

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Backlog and trip to Europe

I will be out of the country with my wife for more than an month.  We are returning on October 16.  I am sure I will have a lot more to share here upon returning.  Also, I have a backlog of 2 trips that I still need to post on.  

I look forward to getting to post more stories and pictures!  

Hope you have enjoyed reading and viewing them so far.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A grand wildlife adventure on a tiny scale

Today, I spent some time in the yard on a mini-adventure. Though small in scale, it was packed with amazing encounters and observations. Incredibly colored animals that would rival tropical birds, a unusual predator waiting in ambush and a busy nectar gatherer all found... on the same plant!

It never ceases to amaze me what wonders await us out in nature. Even great adventures and awe-inspiring experiences are there to be had in a single pot of plants.

One of my routines for getting in touch with and learning from nature is the "sit spot." This is an exercise in which you find a place in nature in which you can sit at least 5 times a week and observe all the comings and goings around you. Generally, you do it for at least 30 minutes at a time. This helps ground a person in nature, as well as allows for connection to have a chance to grow and strength over time. Also, the act of being in a place over time allows us to observe change over time. This is a technique I learned at Wilderness Awareness School, both from the residential program and from the at home-learning course called the Kamana Naturalist Training Program.

Anyway, I decided to spend time being with and observing a sunflower we have growing a planter outside for my sit spot time. Inside the nearly foot-high planter, is several tall sunflower plants. The most developed has a large flower that is at eye level for me.

As they can be for many people, flowers are magnets to wildlife. Being around this flower and its siblings brought me in contact with some really fascinating creatures.

The sunflower itself was beautiful to behold. Its brilliant yellow petals radiating away from its center. A mound of what appear to be anthers covered in pollen at its center. But actually, the mound in the center is made up of many small flowers.

When each of those flowers is pollinated, it will close up and turn its energy to forming a seed.
Many animals seem to enjoy visiting sunflowers to drink nectar and collect pollen. Especially bees...

And I had the privilege of getting to observe one come and collect nectar and pollen actively from the many tiny flowers at the sunflowers center. It did so rapidly, spending less than a second at each one.

In this case, I believe it was western leafcutting bee (Megachile perihirta) or at least this is my best guest according to my Audubon field guide to insects. A cool looking, fuzzy bee which I don't believe I have ever seen before that is about the same size as a honeybee.

The bee soon flew off to forage else where, and I was left to sit with and inspect the life on and around the sunflowers some more. I soon discovered an odd brown dot on the green stem of the plant. Though the sunflower stalks did have a few dead, brown leaves still attached to their stem, they are very green overall. As I looked more closely at the little brown dot I noticed it had legs. Long legs. Only 4 legs, and oddly enough, all on the same side of its body.

The little brown dot turned out to be a spider, some kind of crab spider most likely. Though, I could not find a match in any of my field guides. So its identity, even at the family level shall remain a mystery for now.

Its legs did not span much beyond the diameter of my thumb nail. What really grabbed me about this little fellow, was the fact that it only had legs on one side of its body. Just one side! Four legs... perfectly good legs by the looks of it. But what of the other half of its body? I looked carefully around the stem of the plant to be sure they weren't hidden some how. Well, they were not.

I suddenly really felt for this spider and wondered if it was even possible for it to feed itself. I decided to watch it for a while and see if I could have any insight into its life and the challenges it must face. Within a few minutes, a little green aphid walked up the stem and just below and behind the spider. The movement triggered the spider to respond. It pounced with great finesse and the aphid only escaped by a hair. It had been waiting perfectly motionless in ambush for long before I came along and spotted it. Even having witnessed it, how it was possible for the spider to move so quickly with legs only on one side of its body is still a mystery.

Despite this little creatures obvious physical challenges, it still had a strong will to live. It is a miracle that a spider that is so challenged can still survive and even thrive. It speaks volumes to the power and ability for life to find a way... The sunflower is better because of its presence too, as it helps thin out the insects the drain the plant of its juices and consume its leaves.

As you might see beautifully colored birds on a hike into the forests or jungles, so too can you see intensely colored animals on a miniature hike through a pot of plants.

I found 2 different species of some brilliantly
colored insects hanging out on the same sunflower plant.
The one on the right is called a blue-green leafhopper (Graphocephala atropunctata). I discovered it hanging out temporarily on one of the long petals of the sunflower. It soon departed by leaping into the air and flying across the yard.

The other I found hiding in the
shade of the green sepals of an
unopened sunflower. This species is called the scarlet-and-green leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea).

It did not leave as the other one had. Instead, it stayed very still.

These two living jewels reminded me with their colors of the brilliant parrots I saw while traveling in Peruvian amazon jungle with my wife.

We need not travel far to see the marvels of nature. They are all around us, all the time. We need only slow down, and look carefully and closely.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Our 8 legged neighbors

Spiders seem a natural topic to start with given that that are a frequent visitor in my life lately. There is a good number of them living throughout the area surrounding my home. Even in my yard there is a wealth of spider species, many of which I do not know very well or at all. It seems for each micro-habitat, there are several species of spider.

One of the most common in my yard and from my experience, throughout the greater Puget Sound area is the garden or cross spider, also called the cross orb weaver (Araneus diadematus). They often have a series of white dots or lines on their abdomen that form a whitish cross.

It is the in orb weaver family of spiders, which are the ones that make beautiful spiraling webs on support lines. These webs tend to radiate out from the center, and are amazing to watch being built. This species, like many in its family will spin a new web each night. Though, weird as it might sound, they don't waste the old silk from the previous nights web. They eat it!

Nature is super-efficient and nothing goes to waste.

Like most members in the orb weaver family, this species has fairly small eyes and therefore, poor eye sight. Probably seeing mainly shapes and movement. Their sense of touch is very keen, however. If you so much as breath gently on their web they will feel it and respond.

Here is a shot of the underside of one of those beautiful spiders.

Despite the fact that these spiders can grow to a pretty good size - females can be 3/4" in body length and legs can spread to about 2 inches - they are very gentle animals. Like most spiders, they generally don't bite even when they are handled carefully.

Here is a topside view of the same kind of spider.

To me they are a powerful symbol of interconnection, weaving of dreams and creative force of nature and the universe. They are also one of my favorite invertebrates.

Seen these around your yard, outside your home or office?

In the beginning...

The idea behind this blog is to post about my adventures in nature. Whether that be in my backyard or in a roadless wilderness area. I think that we humans are very visually oriented creatures, and so, it is much more interesting to us (to me personally, for sure) to have a story that includes photos.

I want this blog to be a channel of communication with friends and family about the goings on in my life in Nature. Also, it seems to be a good potential outlet to express my own personal passion for the natural world and all the mysteries within it.

Like the marks left by the leaf in this image, may the words shared here by myself and everyone else who posts here be a set of tracks to lead us all deeper into the mysteries of nature. Both outside and within ourselves...