Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Early Autumn- Fungi and Flowers

Early autumn brings out some beauty in both the fungi and the flowers. Found a few favorites today. Old growth forests have a diverse population of fungi.  Found a neat little coral fungus today.

On the remnants of a tree from long ago, was a cluster of small fungi like so many little umbrellas on the side of a steep mountain peak.   Wonderfully rich colors.

Wanting some variety, I went to a field of aster and goldenrod to find a more rare flowering plant.  The fringed gentian (Gentiana crinita) grows in a very limited geology exhibiting a very shallow soil that is poorly drained.  It is in danger of disappearing.  Its color is beautiful, but also very difficult to capture accurately.

The flowers only open in full sun (to only share pollen when insect pollinators are active).  But, when the sun comes out, the winds kick up. It becomes a challenge to show the sharp detail on the petals when the winds are gusty.  Getting good results becomes a test of patience.  This pair of blooms are basically shouting to the bees "Come and get it!"

I found the fewest fringed gentians of any year, so I just wonder how many more years I will find them.  Seems the same can be said of the Monarch butterfly.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Atlantic Puffins

Few birds attract the fascination like Atlantic Puffins. These seabirds' appearance is endearing.  They are only seen readily when they come to isolated islands to nest in late spring.  Once fledged, they disappear for years until ready to join the nesting cycle. We've sponsored a pair of puffins through the Lab of Ornithology for several years, and read each year's report on the success of our birds. So, we were intent to find some puffins on this trip, even though it is late, and we were likely to only see the fledglings.

While we saw a few puffins around the Bonavista lighthouse, they were nesting on the hidden side of the island near the light.  The advice to us was to go to nearby Elliston, billed as the root cellar capital.  That's a new one.

So, puffins like a rocky island with some turf to burrow in. The sites look like this one a few miles from Elliston. But, unlike this island, the one in Elliston is separated from land by a very narrow channel.

Arriving at the location, we spotted the first of many root cellars. They dotted the hills, indicating where homes once stood. Inside the outer door is a passage to a second door protecting the stored veggies from the hard winter's cold. The abandoned cellars are a testament to both the decline of the traditional cod fishery and to the limited growing season in Newfoundland.  Only root crops are practical in the garden.  

The town of Elliston has an annual puffin festival and welcomes puffin watchers in good style. A local resident welcomed us and briefed us on the best path and safety.  It ended up being an easy 10 minute walk towards the sea and across a narrow neck of land. This is pretty nice.  A lot of puffin sites require a boat ride and a wet landing from a bouncing tender.

So, what did we find?  Joining three pro photographers on a grassy knoll, we were maybe 150 feet from a gang of juvenile Atlantic Puffins. Their burrows were easily spotted.

There seemed to a cycle among many of the birds wherein they would gather along the edge of the  island and launch into flight from there.

So, I just isolated on those birds and waited to see the wingtips move.  It worked pretty well.

The folks at Elliston were really accommodating. Well, truthfully that was true for everyone we met during our nine days in Newfoundland.  Here, they even provided a nice relaxing puffin chair to rest in after the hike back from seeing the birds. Very creative, eh?

Now, allow me to provide some details for the photographers about these birds-in-flight photos. I used a Nikon Series 1 mirrorless V2 camera with the FT1 adapter attached to a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. I shot at 15 frames per second! The exposures  were 1/1000 second at  f/8, ISO 800.  At 200 mm, the equivalent focal length in a 35 mm DSLR is 540 mm. This rig weighs about 4 pounds and is easily hand-held.  An equivalent full frame 35 mm camera, tripod and telephoto lens weighs over 22 pounds. I would never have carried the 22 pound rig onto an aircraft, nor to some of the locations where I used the Nikon V2. I am sold on the benefits of this little camera for travel.

Paul Schmitt

Newfoundland Seabirds- Northern Gannets

August is the end of the nesting season for seabirds in Newfoundland, so most species are gone.  Two spectacular birds are still present - Northern Gannets and Atlantic Puffins. Our first outing for seabirds was a long drive from Heart's Delight down the Avalon Peninsula to Cape St. Mary's where we were to walk 1.6 kilometers out to the Bird Rock. As you can see at right, the trail goes out a neck of land that faces a huge lump of rock. On it is a mass of white dots, all nesting birds.  Visitors are to stay within the red lines, or else.

Along the way we passed free-range sheep that were completely habituated to people. Some of the sheep were even down on the steepest slopes of the mountain, presumably where the grass is greenest. But, we were more interested in seeing Northern Gannets.

As we hiked out the trail, Bird Rock (or many bird rocks)  came into view. From sea level up to the top are distinct zones where different bird species nest. It begins with Cormorants at the bottom and tops out with Northern Gannets.

At the top left in the green areas are some oblong white objects. Sheep. Sure-footed sheep I presume.

As we reached Bird Rock, we came upon a rock crown nearly covered with Gannets.  They  have lovely coloration.

Opposite the above rock crown was another steep slope which was more interesting. The birds would fly in from the seaside directly over our heads and make a 180 turn for a landing into the wind. It was just like an airplane approach.  The  visitor center was visible in the distance as this Gannet lowered flaps for a landing.

We became fascinated with the beauty of these large, graceful flyers.

As the bird approached its nesting area, the strong up-slope let it virtually hover in place and gently settle down the steep slope to an exact spot. We'd never seen this before.  My photography evolved from birds-in-flight to birds-in-stasis.

The object of all this activity is the nest, and raising young.  There were still some late hatching chicks present, and even a few were still downy white as below.  It is questionable if this chick can grow fast enough to be ready for winter.

Now, a graceful landing is not always paired with a graceful launch, so some attention was paid to observing the exit. It was, to some surprise, efficient and graceful.  Perhaps it is easier when the launching pad is 100 meters or more above the sea.

After such success, the drive did not seem quite so long.

Two days later, we found some juvenile Atlantic Puffins.  That will be the next installment.

Paul Schmitt

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Stormy Side of Newfoundland

One of my long-held wishes has been to be on a rocky seacoast when a large storm passes offshore. Our recent trip to Newfoundland began with Hurricane Cristobal somewhere off the middle Atlantic coast of the US.  Over the first two days, the weather in St. John's turned very windy, and misty rain settled in.  On the third day, the morning was rainy and very windy, but just after noontime, the clouds lifted and the rain ceased.  We headed for Signal Hill overlooking the harbor entrance.  The Fort Amherst lighthouse across the Narrows was a dramatic scene.

The wind was certainly in excess of 40 miles per hour on the promontory.  Pretty nice view from overhead, but it was now time to find some exposed beaches where we could get down to sea level. Our next stop was Middle Cove. 

We found that we had lots of company on the same mission to see the waves. Soon afterwards, the woman below had to retreat up the beach to avoid a larger swell that came ashore.

The biggest limitation to such a close approach was the salt that would get on the camera lens and body. (I was nestled beside a large boulder using it to steady my camera.)

From there we went further up the coastal road to Torby Bight. Each rocky shore creates its own visual cacophony.  The power of the waves was best presented, for me, in a simple black and white form.  Color seems to distract from the message of the wave's powerful strike on the shore.

Our final stop was at Flat Rock Cove.  There, long inclined shelves of rock face into the oncoming seas to  create a huge swelling of the waves.  Note the two small boats moored out in the onrushing seas. They often disappeared behind huge breaking waves.

We returned to our little house perched over the Narrows with some great memories.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Good Morning

Sometimes, I think few words are needed to tell the story.

In August, I look forward to the appearance of  beautiful spider webs in the wildflower fields.  Today was a dewy morning with bright sunlight, so they were like jewelry dancing in the light.

But, I was after birds.  The first one was a small Eastern Wood-Peewee along a marsh dike on an Elderberry bush. It is a Tyrant Flycatcher, so it was likely after insects around the bushes or just using the top of the bush as a perch to hunt.

I was particularly looking for the Elderberry bushes because Cedar Waxwings like to feed on them.

I ran off a LOT of shots to finally catch one with a berry in its beak.  After three trips to feed, the flock settled down and the action was over.  So, I  went over to check some marsh areas.  Not a colorful bird, but I find the Double-crested Cormorants to often be a stately presence as they dry their wings in the sun.

I finished off the day with a sandpiper, likely a Lesser Yellowlegs.

 Not a bad  way to spend a Sunday morning.


Monday, August 18, 2014

A Morning at Montezuma Refuge

Unlike last week, when my trip was a dud, today at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge was just what I expected, and maybe a little more.

Found the Trumpeter Swans with their seven cygnets. Actually, they approached us, as we observed the marsh.  I'd seen them before, but they had not come close.

The seventh cygnet is hiding behind number three from the left. It's a challenge to capture an image with all seven clearly visible.  The one time that I did, one adult was out to the side.

I noted that at all times, at least one adult was extremely watchful. Probably why they have so many surviving.  The young seem to have adopted the same watchfulness.

The most common question from visitors at the refuge is where to find an eagle.  It seems seeing one trumps all other reasons to visit the refuge.  There are a great number of juveniles present currently. I suspect many first time visitors fail to recognize an eagle if it doesn't have a white head.   This juvenile was only 30 yards distant.  It appears that these "teenagers" mostly watch for an Osprey to appear with a fish so they can steal a meal. That requires less effort and a lot less skill than catching their own fish. This will end when the Osprey migrate south in the fall.

There are may other interesting birds that are largely ignored.The two birds below are Double-crested Cormorants.  I first discovered these while working for the Navy on Chesapeake Bay.  The watermen working the crab and oyster trade called them Water Witches or Snake Birds. They do move through the water with great agility and dive to great depths.

There are also a substantial number of Caspian Terns on the refuge. They will fly across the open water and suddenly pull up to hover over a spot prior to plunging vertically down into the water.  Typically the tern will emerge with a small fish in the beak.  It is quickly swallowed and the hunt continues.

But sometimes it must be that a tern gets a larger fish, and it too becomes a target for a juvenile thief.  That is what I witnessed today.  There on a shallow flooded pool was a tugging match between an adult Caspian Tern and a juvenile. It lasted for nearly two minutes. Seen below, the juvenile (on the right)  has the whites flects on its head.

I don't know who finally got the sunfish. The fight ended abruptly as both opponents scattered wildly.

It was a pretty good morning this time.  It was worth waking up at 4:00 a.m. this time.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Not what I expected

Went up to Montezuma last week expecting to find a lot of shorebirds starting their fall migration.  They had missed the message, but I found an unexpected bit of beauty on the main pool.

The edges of the marsh were dotted with beautiful pink.

Lovely, isn't it?  Swamp Rose-Mallow.  Belongs in the Hibiscus family.  Take a close look.

The day wasn't a total miss.  Also saw this Great Blue Heron come up with a rather sizable Bullhead.

Looks like a pretty tenuous hold to me.  It must have a strong clamp.  I wanted to see how he could handle this catfish's barbs, but the heron retreated into the cattails. Seems close to the limit of what he can swallow.