Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Pennsylvania Elk

If you have ever heard a big elk bull bugle, you understand the awe that they inspire.  Elk are native to Pennsylvania, but market hunting in late 1800's wiped them out.  Reintroduced to Elk County in 1913, they have slowly rebounded to a healthy status.  I recently went to Benezette near St. Mary's and was successful in seeing them up close.  Here are a few of my favorite images.

For every dominate bull, there are slightly smaller bulls that engage in pushing matches.


On a foggy morning, I located a big bull. He was reported to intimidate any smaller bull that came near.  I called him Big Nasty.  He moved through the woods with not a sound, never catching the rack on any obstructions.  (He clearly knew I was there, looking directly at me.)

Big Nasty- a Dominate Bull Elk

The elk would approach very closely at times. This cow wandered in behind me and joined the bull's harem. She is a stately looking animal.  (She had no calf with  her.)

Maybe a yearling?
Such a bull has a harem of cows plus their calves.  Big Nasty kept watch over them with an eye for any intruding bull. 

Alert while the ladies feed.

Within his harem was the first piebald elk ever recorded in Pennsylvania.  Piebald is a genetic variation in which the face is white.  She looked a bit scruffy to me.

Piebald Cow and Calf

The cows would sometimes wander into the trees, and the bull would follow possibly concerned about another bull sneaking in.  He'd return with the cow and often begin bugling so strongly one could see his breath.

Big Nasty in full voice.

On another day, I saw a group of cows and calves cross a creek on their way to some woods to rest in the midday.

After they had disappeared into the woods on the far bank, the bull appeared and lowered his nose to track their path across the creek within feet of the cows' track.

We just don't easily comprehend their acute sense of smell that is so critical to their survival.

I don't think I will ever tire of hearing an elk bugle.  It is worth the trip just to hear it, and getting close just builds my appreciation for this majestic wild animal.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Finally, a Sign of Autumn

Here in the Finger Lakes we are in the grips of an extreme drought that dampens any hope of a colorful autumn.  No water in the gorge waterfalls, drab leaf drop due to stress on trees, and unusual warmth. But, I got a tip that the Fringed Gentians were in bloom, and my plan to bicycle was quickly dropped.  They are arguably the last fall flower to bloom. Often my plans to photograph them have failed when a cold front roars in with wet rain. But today was ideal. 

Arriving at the semi-secret location, the dew was still on the plants.  Fringed Gentians keep their blooms tightly closed until the sun warms them. That way the pollen is protected until bees are active.  The early sun bathed the flower heads in a warm light. Note the frilly edges on the curled petals.

Fringed Gentians are an uncommon biennial that requires a moist, calcareous soil of neutral pH.  It seems to me the soil is often shallow.

With about an hour before the sun reached enough elevation to activate the unfurling, I explored the interesting form as the light shifted from the extremely warm to a daylight color.  The purple color is very difficult to get correct.  You can see on the next image that the petals are just beginning to spread.  How amazing they are.

By shooting into the sun, I captured the sparkle of the dew drops on the fringes.

Some of the plants I had been working were close to a treeline, and tree shadows shifted across them to delay the opening. Looking farther out in the field, I realized some were now mostly open. 

See  how the color shifted as the sun climbed higher?  The bees began to show up, though they seemed to mostly like the Asters nearby. (None of them cooperated, sadly.)

Here's an earlier image from 2014 that shows a wonderful cluster of Aster blooms awaiting a bee's visit.

The Fringed Gentians are a pretty exciting flower to find. This year seems to be the richest that can be recalled.  Since they are biennials, it would seem that last year was an excellent year for seedlings to develop. We are enjoying the fruits of 2015.  I wonder how this drought will play out with the seeds destined to begin the cycle in 2017.  I'll be awaiting another message that gentians are in bloom for 2017.

Paul Schmitt

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage- Three Amigos

Mile Marker at McKeesport
We three amigos - Leo, Gene and Paul -  have known each other since the early 70's when we paddled whitewater streams that included the Youghiogheny River in Western Pennsylvania. It's the "Yough" to paddlers and it can be big water.

Today,  we are greybeards on bicycles and returning to journey on the Great Allegheny Passage rail-to-trail which largely follows the Youghiogheny for the western  half of the GAP. The trail uses the former Western Maryland Railroad roadbed from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. Now CSX trains run on one side of the river and the GAP trail runs the other. How well we recall the trains rumbling up and down the tracks on each side of the "Yough" as we paddled in famous rapids like Railroad and Whales Tail. We were never able to see the river from track level before this trip. This trip reveals a new perspective.
Leo and Gene ready to roll

The gradient going west is nearly five times greater per mile, so we went eastward, beginning in McKeesport some 18 miles from Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers. Here, and at numerous other access points, we found convenient parking and a clearly marked route. The trail surface is excellent.

The first of many stops along the way was in Boston.  (You can also find Boston in Kentucky and Georgia.) I took a photo of another cyclist from the big Boston, and he reciprocated for us at mile 4 in our travels.

Our next stop was at Dravo where a spark from a locomotive twice  burned the Methodist Church  to the ground. The second time, in 1920, it was not rebuilt and all that remains is the graveyard.

Leo at the Red Waterfall

All along this lower part of the river, there was evidence of the role that coal played in bringing the railroad here.  True the railroad was part of the westward passage, but coal both fueled the locomotives and dictated where the railroad found revenues.

Near Buena Vista we saw a most unusual waterfall coming down the embankment. This is acid runoff from the long abandoned Ocean Number 2 mine.  It is rich in sulfur and iron due to the iron pyrite found along the coal seam.  I looked on a satellite image and found a cluster of modern homes just above the embankment.  (Where do they get their drinking water?)

Passing the riders traveling the other direction, there is always a greeting.  The visitor centers also offered warm greetings, and a nice lady at the West Newton  center sent us across the river to Jim's Chuck Wagon for lunch.  It was arguably the best lunch of the entire trip.  Good food and friendly people. Nice.

In addition to the coal mines, there were sites where the coal was processed into the coke needed to make steel.   We were following Gene at a distance and saw him pull over and walk up into the trees.  Thinking he just needed relief, we thought nothing of it until we saw that his bike was resting on a sign post reading Coke Ovens.  Following up the short trail, we found a long line of beehive shaped ovens built into the hillside. This was the more primitive process before it became modernized. It seems amazing that they have survived so many years.

Day One ended after 40 miles at the KOA in Adelaide a few miles from Connellsville.  Very nice campground for bicyclists in need of a hot shower.

On the next morning we were away at the normal early hour.  This day was 47 miles from Rockwood to Connellsville that included the section where we so often paddled the "Yough", and where one sees some spectacular railroad engineering through narrow gorges. As on every day, there were shuttles to run so we'd have a car at the end of the ride.

Coming from Rockwood in a westerly direction put us on a generally downgrade track.  Early on our route we came to the spectacular Pinkerton Tunnel.  It is 849 feet long with a high trestle on each end to span the "Yough" as it makes a tight horseshoe bend. It is long enough to need lights front and back.  Leo demonstrates how suddenly the rider emerges from the tunnel.


We pressed on towards Ohiopyle where we so often began our whitewater paddling. Standing at the falls, it seemed so long ago that we carried our kayaks down the bank to launch below the falls.  Can't do that now; it's all closed off.  The old change house is gone, and in its place is a large visitor center.

 Ohiopyle has grown into a tourist center for bicycling, river running, hiking and even a waterslide.  The one constant is the Ohiopyle Falls on the river. Upstream people still wade  and the trains still blow strongly at the grade intersection just above the falls.  The GAP trail is a great addition to the area that just may have been a catalyst for the rest of the growth.

But the three amigos had 17 miles to go, and it was time to roll.  First, the high bridge over the river for a view we never had when the Western Maryland was active. It was downhill and we kept a fast pace with Gene in the lead.


Our ride over, it was back to a camp in Rockwood, where the CSX trains across the river blew at the crossing with such gusto that ear plugs were nearly useless. We divided our route the next day into two sections, again to coax mostly downhill running.  Meyersdale to Rockwood began at the visitor center and soon got to the Salisbury Viaduct at 1908 feet long and about 100 feet above the valley.

The run to Rockwood went quickly, and we shuttled back to run from Meyersdale to Frostburg.  Along that stretch we navigated another high viaduct to reach the high point of the trip at the Eastern Continental Divide. There would be few upgrades from here to Cumberland.

Beginning our downhill run, we came to the granddaddy tunnel, the Big Savage Tunnel, that is 3,294 feet long.  There really is only a pinpoint of light in the distance as you enter. It was at first unlighted inside, but a local described to me how her sister ran into the tunnel wall in the darkness. We had lights on our bikes.

Exiting the tunnel, we had a wide view of the eastern side of the mountains.

Gene and Leo bundled up for the run to Cumberland
In Frostburg for our last night, we found a good restaurant to refuel and managed to stay warm in our tents in this town called "Frost" -burg.  The next morning would be almost a continuous coast into Cumberland.  We'd lose 1207 feet of elevation in only 15 miles.  It was chilly in the morning, and we were glad we had windbreakers on during the quick descent.

The highlight of the run to Cumberland was coming upon a dozen Wild Turkeys just above the last tunnel. We'd been through so many tunnels by now that the Brush Tunnel, at 914 feet, was child's play.  It will take me longer to  get used to the high viaducts.

The end of the GAP trail is the beginning of the C&O Towpath to Washington, so I've overlaid the marker signs over the entrance to the C&O. 

It was a good trip.  There was fine weather, good companions and a fantastic rail-to-trail.  We are still friends.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Some Highlights of Summer 2016

As Labor Day approaches, I would like to return to images from the summer of 2016 which have special meaning to me. A few comments will reveal why the photo is special. 

The summer began with a trip to a state forest where a nice stand of Pink Lady's-slippers survive.  We can thank the heavy deer hunting pressure for letting this population escape the destructive browsing most places experience.  I call this image the Two Sisters.  It is a portrait.

I always get excited when I see the sensuous orchid blooms.  Even more unusual and spectacular are the Showy Lady's-slippers found at a secret location. Again, heavy deer hunting from neighboring  farmers plays a role in their survival. This image is special to me because there are, at right and at far-left, seed pods from last year's flowers.  The two blooms show an unopened bud and a fully open bloom.  It was magical to find this all in one composition.

Next is an image that fulfills a quest I've had for three years. The Black Tern is an uncommon bird, and a bit unusual in that its habitat is fresh water marsh rather than seashore.  It's flight is rapid and erratic as it dips and dives close to the water catching emerging insects such as mosquitoes.  The dark gray color makes a proper exposure difficult.  The coloration suggests this is a newly fledged juvenile learning to hunt.

Along with the outings after natural images, there was a wonderful trip to Ireland that I've written about extensively.  There is one image that I will always like to see. Up so early in Kinvara that the night clerk in our hotel had to unlock the front door for me, I found a mirror calm harbor with delightfully warm sunlight.

Back  home, it still had not rained, and the streams and ponds were getting low. The wading birds, like this Great Blue Heron, were finding fish concentrated and vulnerable.  Of course, they had young in the nest that were utterly dependent on the adult's success to survive.

Just as an athlete practices to perfect the timing for a scoring shot or difficult catch, catching the decisive moment for a wild subject requires practice.  A trip to a nearby river to practice on Killdeer as they take flight is key to getting future shots with the wings in a good position. This shot was mixed in with a lot of near misses.  Consider that the bird rapidly reaches 20 miles per hour in a few feet. To get a sharp image, the photographer has to anticipate the launch, and must have a shutter  faster than 1/1000 second, with 1/1600 second being optimum. It's fast reaction plus fast shutter.

So, I am pretty happy when one of these works out.  Killdeer are only moderately shy.  Belted Kingfishers are extremely shy (as are Great Blue Heron).  You have to find a favored perch site, set up and be invisible. Then wait.  If fortune is on one's side, the sound of a Kingfisher's rattling call announces its approach.  The fun begins as it surveys the stream from the perch.

Sometimes it makes faces and seems to show off.  The tension builds with continued concentration on every twitch and shift.  When the bird becomes intent on a location, the first indication of flight is usually seen in the wingtips.  Then it explodes towards its prey down below.

Full disclosure:  Often the bird does not appear at the perch, or it gives no hint of flight before it launches, or it turns its back and the photo is an unflattering north side of a southbound bird. But when it happens just right, it is magical.

Then there are days when nothing goes right except for a single Common Starling that appears. That is what you come home with.  And you realize that if they weren't such pests, you'd probably try to photograph them.

There are also subjects that are cloaked in negative associations such that many fail to find them interesting or beautiful.  I'm within 1-1/2 hours of a rail-to-trail that goes through some habitat for Eastern Timber Rattlesnakes.  From the safety of a wide trail, one can see them without any stress on observer or subject. I find their markings beautiful.  Watching one slowly ease across a steep bank looking for crickets or other prey reveals how it thoroughly checks every feature for its next meal.  The challenge for me has been to find a subject with both head and rattles clearly visible and unobstructed by a twig or leaf.  On the third visit this summer, I hit my target with two different snakes. This one has ten rattles.  Maybe 48 inches long.

It's not just finding the subject, but also one in good position and uniform light. The same goes for flighty little birds.  This male American Goldfinch came along when I was looking for herons.  The image is special to me because the wispy thistle seed has escaped from the bird's beak.

It seems to me that there are three parts in the making of good photos.  Understanding the technical principles of good exposure,  putting your time into the process and stealing ideas from others.  The last one is why painters go to displays of paintings, musicians listen to other performers and actors watch movies and plays. Maybe my favorites of this summer offer some ideas to steal when photographing what you care about.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, July 15, 2016

On the One Road- Towards the Sea

Away on Sunday, July 3, a wee bit later than usual, the bus arrived at a cathedral in Galway just in time for the 11 am mass; but I was a heathen and walked over to the River Corrib where the salmon were running up towards Corrib Lough.  Three fishermen were running salmon flies across the current with extremely long fly rods.  The closest one seemed particularly adept, and I concentrated on him hoping to see him hook a big one.  Only a short wait and it happened!  What a start to the day.

A short walk along the river and we came upon a vehicle free set of city streets that were rich with stores, pubs and people. I've been interested in the variety of adornments for the pubs in Ireland and found another for my collection- the Dew Drop Inn.  The 1902 date on the door labels it as a newcomer in the scheme of Irish pubs.

There is no shame in being 114 years young, nor in being irreverent.  I had my sights set on another pub but had to ask a bit to get directions to Fat Freddy's Pub.  "All children left unattended will be given an espresso and a free kitten." Should allow the patrons to have a perfect pint of stout undisturbed.

It was the first warm day, and we found a McDonalds perfect for a cold lemonade, clean restroom and quiet seating.  (The shame of it with so many pubs!)  A nice lunch of eggs benedict with lox brought us back to the proper tourist mode at Maxwells. 

Later, we wandered a bit among the crowds before settling on a comfy bench outside Sheridan's Cheesemongers to listen to the street musician doing Jimmy Buffett songs. We were awaiting the appointed hour for a wine and cheese tasting upstairs at Sheridan's.  I'd drifted into the retail store; it was hardcore exotic cheeses and sausages.  Consider the aroma of over 50 different aged cheeses.  Whooee! It was really heady stuff.  The tasting was great fun.

Back at the bus, I admit to sleeping most of the way to the ferry we'd ride out to Inish Mor for two nights. Also slept on the ferry trip and arrived on the island wanting to skip the van ride and take a brisk walk to the hotel. That was a good decision. Walking along the seawall we came upon a local horseman giving his two horses a swim. Evidently the horses had worked the day pulling carts carrying visitors around the island.  This was their reward for a good day's work. This excited me for the coming day on Inish Mor. It would be an unusual way to spend the Fourth of July.

I awoke early hoping for an explore before breakfast, looked out and went back to sleep.  Rain. After breakfast, we had a van that took us out to Dun Aengus.  It is an Iron Age defensive fort, built around the second century BC, on the edge of a 100 meter cliff over the sea. There is a long approach walk across fields divided by heavy stone walls. The stone walls were the only way to clear the land enough to have pasture or crop land. There are 7000 miles of walls on this nine mile long island.

Photo by Pam Schmitt

On a rainy, windy day  with many slippery rocks, it can be a real challenge that  calls for a few rest stops and abundant caution. No reason to risk a fall.

As we approached the fort, the wind seemed to build and mist blew on us.  We all made it, and fortunately, that  was before the first load of day visitors descended on the trail. The fort walls are about 6 meters high and arrayed in four rings with a single entrance through each wall.

One delight was the near complete absence of litter.  It seemed to be some combination of respect and housekeeping.

Once inside the walls, the view of the sea atop a high cliff was dramatic though no photo could capture the feeling.

Walking back to the van, we met the first wave of day visitors.  There were a few delightful little scenes of beauty along the trail.  There beside a carefully laid wall of stone were blooming wild geraniums, just like I might see anywhere in my native New York.  They love this misty seaside, obviously.

Back in the van, the weather became milder and we stopped at an abandoned eighth century chapel, Teampall Bhreacain.  The polite request for shutting the gate is, I expect, quite normal in Ireland.

As we extended our travel out to the end of island on what was now single track pavement, the extent of the stone walls never diminished.  It was engaging landscape, which I wished I could independently explore by bicycle on a rainless day.  Oh, to have two full days on Inish Mor for that purpose.

As we returned toward our  hotel, we paused at seaside where there is a haul-out for seals.  Predictably, they were there.

As we boarded the van, one of the horse carts approached in the clearing weather.

Our excursion over, the group had free time. Some chose to nap, some to explore the village for a lunch spot. We had a dinner planned at the Ti Joe Watty Pub nearby, and I decided to insert a brisk explore in the late afternoon that ended there. I discovered the cartman turning his horse out to pasture after the day's work.

Along the same road, I found the remains of the Lucky Star Bar just up the road from the prospering Ti Joe Watty Pub, possibly a victim of competition.  They did serve an excellent meal to us later, and had lively music with local artist Locko plus our Pat and Terri. That was another reason to wish for two full days on Inish Mor.  This trip was really on a roll!

While on Inish Mor, our bus remained on shore and our trusty driver, Con Collins, enjoyed a well-deserved rest day. The narrow roads and his attention to our needs were ample reason to let him recharge a bit. 

Up early the next day to catch the first ferry off the island, Con again took us on a different set of roads around Galway Bay, through lovely Kinvara to the rocky heights of the Burren and on to the Cliffs of Moher.  The cliffs are one of the top visitor sights in Ireland; the crowds looked like ants in the distance.

These cliffs are spectacular, but there are stone walkways and cliff-side barriers due to the number of visitors. The next day, we were at Kilkee and there were long stretches of simple hiking trails and no competition. Like Inish Mor, I'd delight to have a full day in Kilkee. No paved trails or railings. Kevin and Pat free ranged towards the edge.

Our trip was down to one full day before departing at Shannon. We went out the West Clare Pennisula arriving at the cemetery at Cross, where some of Pat Kane's relative are resting. This connection between trip participants and the names in the cemetery creates a deeper, special sense of place. The tended flowers among the graves creates a beautiful testament to family love.

At the extreme end of the pennisula we found Loop Head Lighthouse.  Look at those flags.  Windy!

The day ended with a medievil banquet at Knappogue Castle that had both good food and  entertainment.  Back to the hotel to prepare our baggage for a return flight in the morning. 

It was a satisfying trip with great companions, excellent leadership and a great variety of experiences. My final image is from the sheltered side of the wall around Loop Head Lighthouse with the flags of the Republic of Ireland, the European Union and County Clare all seen in a brisk wind.

Strange. I never saw a shamrock.