Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seeing Winter

Up until today, our winter had not delivered any covering of snow, and the iconic images are just not found on my walks.  Can you still feel the winter without snow?  Well, I think it is easier with a cold blue sky such as I found at Hog Hole on Cayuga Lake last week.

On that day, the blue sky was very transient and I soon was left with the grey sky.  Thankfully, the clouds had some features to them, and I could move to a black and white image that also conveyed a coldness.  What is missing is the feeling of the cold wind coming off Cayuga Lake.

I resisted the temptation to put a bluish cast to the scene. It seems cold already. (This is an iPhone photo, converted to b&w in Lightroom 4. )

A few days later, we had a lot of rain, a freezing night and then some sleet in the morning.  A hike at the nearby Steegee Hill Preserve found another cold image.  Those little white spots are balls of sleet. I can hear them hitting the frozen leaves, making a sound that is unique. It just sounds cold.

Most of the trails are on old logging roads with deep ruts from the heavy log skidder.  The ruts were   filled with water.  Overnight, the pools of water were covered with a thin sheet of ice.  As the rainwater seeped into the ground, a thin filagrie of ice was left, delicately suspended above the damp leaves. 

Today, heavy snow is being forecast to be on its way.  It will be easier to capture the feeling of winter, but perhaps I've found more creativity while facing less iconic weather.  I just wish I did not have to drive thru a snowstorm tomorrow.  Hopefully, I'll still have snow when I get back home.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Few Views of the Winter Solstice

As I walked through the now barren herb garden at Cornell Plantations last week, the statue of the Yarb Woman seemed perfect for how I feel at the winter solstice.

The Yarb Woman looks over her sleeping garden cleared of all the remnants of cone flower, aster and thyme. Her patina of red and blue seems the only color remaining.

The daylight is brief and the night long. Most days are damp and chilly. Our personal energy seems at a low point.

So, what is this winter solstice revealing to us at what feels like a low point?  We know the sun will return and start a renewal of life.  It seems a time to be optimistic in the face of long nights,  to remember  how we complain about the hottest days and to recall  how the heat can sap our energy.

Beyond the cold, the darkness and the lifeless fields, we know that life is still good.  It is really extraordinary.  The buds lie asleep on the beech and the azalea alike, and their time will come to our delight. Be patient.

This time is also a challenge to a photographer in love with the colorful blooms and the birds of summer. I have to find wonder in the subtleties of the season if I am to photograph.  This blog is my attempt to match the feeling of the solstice to the feelings in the photos.  (All photos taken with Canon G9 or iPhone4s.)

One morning, I took a walk around a nearby pond. The teasels remained for the gold finches to pick apart for seed. To match the feeling, I reduced the color to just a  hint, for the sun only added  a hint of warmth to the day.  That matches how the gold finches' color is also reduced to only a suggestion of their bright yellow breeding colors.

During my walk, the sun made an effort to warm the day, and some color did erupt for my camera's pleasure.  Note the lone green pine tree reflected in the pond beyond the ice.  It is our knowing perseverance.  How welcome is that little bit of green.

Yet, the predominate color is a dull red found in these dead stalks and a cold blue from the sky.  And, I realize it too is the color of the deer in winter. Not the warm honey red of summer, but a darker and more somber hue that makes it easy to walk past and not see the animal standing there.

I realize that I long for the first real snowfall this year to replace the ground's dull browns and to gracefully dress the brown weed stalks.  The last two days' rain would have been more uplifting as snow.  I grew up in the south were snow was the exception, and I did not get to really appreciate its gift to raising the spirits until I came to the New York's Finger Lakes. 

So, today, as I walked my neighborhood, the stark outline of barren oak trees made me pull out my iPhone and record how I felt on a rainy December day when there should have been snow.

I guess I am in a winter solstice sort of funk, and need some snow to brighten up the landscapes and give me reason to pull out the snowshoes for a brisk hike.   Or, maybe I need  to dance around a bonfire?


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bald Eagles Aplenty

Each November, the approaching winter brings about a concentration of Bald Eagles to locations where there is easy fishing. This only lasts three or four weeks for the adults.

I just returned from a three day trip to one such place with good results.  There were easily two hundred Bald Eagles with a mix of adult pairs and juveniles; all were waiting for the hydroelectric units to roar into action and dispense a buffet of stunned fish.  I soon saw that  some were skilled at snatching fish from the river, and some were, well,  not so good. The latter were typically inexperienced juveniles who are now without parents to catch fish for them.  This was a great opportunity to build my skill at tracking the fast moving birds and timing the shutter release for the critical events.  It was basically batting practice for birds-in-flight (BIF photography).  Great fun too.

My first object was to capture the aerobatics of the eagles as they circle overhead.  Not so easy with the narrow field of view of a telephoto lens.  You have to get the lens onto a fast moving bird, lock focus and keep on the bird as it sweeps across the river.

When an eagle spots a fish, it can easily turn quickly and dive down for a closer look.  I love the way that they can throw their legs out and drop the tail to swing around.  Leaves me envious.

Once down to the right elevation, the eagle usually makes a shallow glide to the target and, at the last moment, throw its talons out to snatch the prey.

Those talons present quite a formidable array, and only a few points need to make contact.

I believe this catch was a small Walleye Pike.

The power turbines are usually active at sunrise when electrical usage jumps up.  Having roosted overnight, the birds are hungry.  The early morning activity is pretty intense and the low light a challenge for photography.  But the birds can be beautiful in the soft, warm light.

I think the graceful curves of the wing feathers are especially interesting as they  flex in the moving air.  This is only visible because the camera can freeze the motion.

Now, there is a lesson about survival in the natural world that we should recognize.  There is little room for social graces and politeness when an animal must eat or die. Robbery is a common event among eagles. Here are two juveniles in such a duel.  The trailing bird can fly faster and maneuver more nimbly than the bird with the fish. It easily overtakes the other bird.

Look closely at the first bird's tail. It is a fish's tail, not his.  He's already begun to voice his anger.  It is simply easier to steal a fish than to catch it.  So, juveniles especially attempt this on other juveniles or adults alike.  I saw a particularly good example among two adult eagles.  The attacker is on the left.

As is often the case, the attacker did not get the fish.  You can see it dropping to the river.  The victim voices his anger at the attacker on the left.

You may rightly wonder who got the fish?  Neither.  It sank.  The victim immediately flew off, and the attacker searched without luck.

So, how can an eagle ever get to eat its catch with so many robbers about?  I saw one example that may shed a light on the question.  This bird has a relatively small catfish.  He flew into a densely branched Beech Tree so that any attacker would be limited in approaching.

You can also see that the eagle was pretty vigilant, keeping an eye to the sky.

There is one other aspect of this to address.  With two hundred or more eagles eating several fish a day, who cleans up after all of this?  Eagles don't exactly clean the plate.  Nature has a pretty efficient system for this.  Here it is.

This is a Black Vulture.  A cousin of the Turkey Vulture, it has a taste for fish rather than rodents. So this relatively unusual bird finds it way into a small area around the hydro plant; it is found nowhere else in the area. There are  a comparable number of BVs waiting to dispose of the leftovers from the large number of eagles.  Now,  I know what you are thinking, but what would your life be like if no one took your garbage away?  They are actually very graceful flyers too.  I just would not recommend standing under one of their roost trees.

I'll post my most exciting images later after I have had time to edit all of my photos.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Seeing Autumn in Simple Terms

Sometimes, I find myself getting too complicated with my photography.  Too much gear to see clearly. Too much weight to haul.  It can become a burden.  So, today, I am publishing seven photos taken with my simple iPhone 4.  No zoom, no filters, no tripod, no thirty pounds of gear.  Just the wide angle, fixed aperture lens and the editing apps on the phone.

I'll begin with a photo taken last Friday when I had ten minutes to spare before a program with some delightful ladies in a garden club.  Found this in the arboretum at Cornell Plantations.

Used an app called Photogene to trim a bit and add a frame. I don't recall ever seeing such tall asters.  Staying on the subject of asters, I found these on a short walk.  They clearly have not benefited from the attention the preceding asters received, but that is part of what attracted me.

Pretty nice, and only a short walk from my home.  Only had the iPhone along. 

On longer walk in the Steegee Hill preserve nearby, I found the even later blooming Witch Hazel.  It can be found blooming in January.  Really!

Again, edited in the iPhone using Photogene. 

Granted that Witch Hazel is not as spectacular as some, but can the others bloom after the killing freezes?

On the same walk, I came upon a demonstration of the randomness in nature.  This oak leaf somehow flew in the wind to catch itself on a tiny branch of Witch Hazel.  Somehow, it was caught by a small hole in the leaf.  What are the odds of that? So, I had to take a photo.

Edited in PhotoForge2 and colorized in Mobile Monet.

Often, I seem to see subjects in combination with their setting.  These small shelf fungi are not too unusual, but I saw something in the blanket of reddish oak leaves and grayness of a late autumn day.

The colors of the woods depends on the tree types, so nearby was a grove of maples.  They were a simple yellow in a surrounding sea of reddish oak leaves. One yellow maple leaf had been blown against a tree's trunk, and it stuck there.

Edited in Photogene and colorized in Mobile Monet.

Not all of my time this fall has been in the woods. Earlier this month I was in Cape May chasing birds. On a few instances, I pulled out the iPhone for a break from the heavy equipment.

I am sure that most of the settings for my photos at Cape May are unrecognizable today after the hurricane blew through there yesterday. I mostly wonder about the fate of the many migrating birds, and the people that live there.  But, I also wonder what this stretch of sand dunes looks like today.  On one October day, the sunrise looks like this with the Cape May lighthouse in the distance. It was lovely.

Photo taken with DMD Dermander HDR app.  HDR is high dynamic range; the app takes two photos, one over exposed and the other underexposed, in order to record the wide range of tones.  It  then combines them into one image.  Post processed using PhotoForge2.

So, the iPhone does not replace my high end camera and lenses.  But, its limitations do support them by demanding that I pay attention to more than complicated equipment. A simple camera is a great learning tool for both the neophyte and the advanced photographer.  The instantaneous review of your photo is arguably the greatest learning tool to come along in photography.   Give it a try.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hanging on to Autumn Colors

Right now, it is raining heavily and I know that the multicolored leaves will soon be gone. The optimist in me says that might make for either some great waterfall or rich mushroom scenes.  The realist says the dull colors of winter are on the way, soon.

So, it is time to recap the highlight of this fall season. Went to Rock City near Salamanca (New York) where the huge blocks of rock monoliths compete with the colors for attention.

I've reported all I found there in the Cayuga Nature Photograper's blog at See Rock City.  

More recently, I led a group of friends to one of the nicest collections of waterfalls in the northeastern United States.  Rickett's Glen State Park in Pennsylvania has twenty-two named waterfalls, all in about a three mile distance along Kitchen Creek.  See:  Rickett's Glen State Park 

The highest waterfall is Ganoga at 94 feet.  It is both the highest and, arguably, one of the more difficult ones to photograph, since it usually lies half in sun and half in shadow.  It's also a bit slippery to get near.

Ganoga Waterfalls in Autumn

The high waterfalls are not the only beauty to be found on Kitchen Creek.  Some of the smaller cascades are lovely.

Kitchen Creek Cascade

And, even smaller little drops can be entertaining as they wind their way down the bedrock that is littered with golden leaves.

Ribbons of Water

Among the waterfalls, I think Erie is my favorite large drop,  It's 47 feet, but what I really like is the setting and the color in the background.

Erie Falls on Kitchen Creek

It seems to me that the falls is mirrored by the hillsides colors. I've seen it in later winter and the ice makes another wonderful scene.

But, there are unnamed little drops that sometimes are really beautiful, like this one on the lower portion of Kitchen Creek.

A Gentle Drop in Kitchen Creek

Now,  there was a secret to the above photo.  I placed the camera extremely low to the ground so that the leaves in the foreground were a strong part of the image.  I actually was lying on the ground in order to see through the viewfinder.

There are, of course, many other ways to see autumn. It is also in the contrasting leaves of red and yellow that stand out against a deep blue sky.

Oak Leaves in Red and Yellow

Sometimes, the only color left among the bare branches is a hardy oak.

 But I like to make the viewer unravel the scene when a pond offers a nice reflection.

Which do you find the more interesting?  To me there is a mystery in the reflections that keeps me interested for a longer time.  Perhaps part of this is that I see so many nice scenes that I would like to have with a reflection, like this final image.

In Want of a Reflection- Red and Yellow Among the Birch Trunk

So, I expect this is the end of my autumn photography, but not an end to my memories of this autumn.  After all, I have these photos to remind me.

Enjoy the day.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, October 12, 2012

Itty-Bitty Bird Migration

When the autumn winds come out of the north, the itty-bitty bird migration erupts.  I've been working that for photographs of mostly small perching birds this October.  I've come up with both commonplace and unusual birds. 

Sometimes I only have to walk over to the town park for results such as this nice Eastern Towhee.  It's not uncommon, but I love its boisterous vocalizations of "drink your tea" in spring and its more subtle chips in fall.

Traveling farther from home, I encountered what birders would call a "life bird"; one that is extremely uncommon in North America.  The Northern Wheatear is described in my bird book as a rare tundra breeder that normally migrates to Africa.  Presumably, some North Atlantic storm blew this juvenile bird way off-course.

I would normally work to have the Wheatear posed in a more natural setting, but had I scared off this bird in the process, I would likely have suffered mob action from the serious birders lined up nearby. 

The Brown Thrasher is a common bird that I really enjoy.  This one had me confused because he was vocalizing like a Red-bellied Woodpecker, leading me to look in the wrong places.   The image correctly shows his brash attitude.  He's giving me a vocal hazing in the photo.

I don't keep a life list of birds, but my first encounter with a Black-throated Blue Warbler left me wanting more.  It frequents the shady woodland brush, and the females look so much like other warblers that I don't believe I'd pick up on one.  But this colorful  male sure got my attention. I want more of this.

The Common Yellowthroat is just that, but I just love the poses that I find like this one with its feet on two crossing branches.  Hope it never becomes uncommon.  I frequently find it along the power line near our home.

This is probably a female, or maybe a juvenile. The male has a deep black mask that is instantly recognizable.

Now, there are birders whose goal is to find as many species as possible, and there are those who relish in observing  any bird's behaviors.  I am in the latter, and recently had great fun watching some Red-breasted Nuthatches searching for food among the cedar trees. This one has a small insect, maybe a spider in its beak.

It seemed they were more comfortable upside down as they probed the dense foliage, again finding an insect.  On one occasion I found a juvenile overcome by the demands of long distance migration that it simply landed in the road.  Having picked it up to move it, there was no feeling of weight at all. 

The Red-breasted Nuthatches were also very approachable, often coming in so close I could not focus on them.  But, I had to be quick.

Another secretive and uncommon bird is the Brown Creeper.  They forage for insects on the bark of large trees. This one was on a sassafras tree. Their coloration makes it difficult to see them.  Their call is very high pitched and hard to hear.   I've only seen one on two occasions.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is pretty much the opposite of the Brown Creeper- common and bold. It makes for great practice and entertainment.  This one was feeding on autumn berries.

It has a yellow rump, yellow sides and a heavily streaked breast. 

Finally, a tiny bird that is common but still a challenge to me.  I saw dozens of  Ruby-crowned Kinglets this fall, but only once did a male show the brilliant red crest raised on its head.  It was directly behind me and nearly overhead. Then, it was gone.  So I was stymied, again.   Still, I have to show you one absent the red crest.

I sat for an hour on two occasions and watched as these little birds dashed out to catch insects from around sassafras fruit on the ground.  Just catching one motionless was a reward.

It's cold and breezy outside as I write this.  The weather forecast is for 23 degrees (F) in the morning, so I think most of the small bird migration is over. It's been fun.

Hope you enjoy, and maybe have a few new birds to recognize.

Paul Schmitt

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rocky Mountain Highlights- Elk, Bison & Moose

We arrived in West Yellowstone on a rainy Sunday evening as a majority of visitors headed home after the weekend. The wake-up on Monday was about 5:15 am so we could get the car loaded, and be on the road at 6:00 am; elk are early risers.  The west entrance to the park is only 1/2 mile from the town, and my research told me to expect elk anywhere after the first 5 miles along the Madison River.

At about 10 miles, we found a large meadow across the Madison River. The sunrise was soft in the damp morning air. The faint outlines of elk were visible where the meadow met the mountain.  We could hear the cow's "mew" call as they kept track of one another.

As the dawn approached, we could see with binoculars that there were five cow elk and a spindly 3 point bull. I thought, he's just a teenager, and not likely to hold onto those cows when one of the big boys shows up.

 His bugle was a bit weak, reflecting his immaturity.  But, of course, he did not know that. 

After some time, we drove north towards Mammoth Hot Springs.  There is a fraternity of nature photographers who willingly share useful intelligence, likely based on how big your lens is.  (ha ha) The closer your lens is to their big lens, the more they tell you. So, we heard that there was a big bull raising havoc at Mammoth near the campground. 

Along the way, we encountered our first large bison bull.  Reminded me to keep my speed down so I could avoid hitting one.  His horns show a lot of wear; possibly an old boy that the dominant bull drove away to a solitary life.

 We arrived at Mammoth, and saw no elk around the hotel or visitor center.  Driving into the campground just north of Mammoth, we found the big bull sleeping in a campsite.  We parked a reasonable distance away and watched him from beside our car.  You can see that the tine on the near side is broken off; the result of his aggression on something.

He was accompanied by a calf, and a few cows were off to the side. The evidence of  his potential for anger shows in the leafy branches wrapped in his antlers. Bulls are well known to rake small, and sometimes rather large trees.  This guy was also getting a  reputation for raking cars.  When we entered the campground, a ranger shadowed us from a distance to be sure we did not approach the elk.  Not a chance we'd do that.

In the evening, we returned to the meadow on the Madison River, and as expected, the little bull was replaced by a big bull. He's a 6 by 5, the result of breaking off his sixth tine in some confrontation.

There were two somewhat smaller bulls on the periphery keeping the dominate one alert; we counted nineteen cows and yearlings in his harem.  The little bull continued to stay on the edge near a lone cow, but he was clearly outdone now. It was a pleasant evening watching the manuvering within the herd, and listening to the haunting sound of elk bugling. It was a long day, and we were early to bed.

We returned at first light to the meadow, and elk were just across the river in the half light. By sunrise, we could see the big boy was still there with his harem, but only the spike bull remained on the edges.

The bull was keeping close tab on his ladies, and enforcing any attempt to stray too far from the group. 

The little bull remained in the tall grass near a lone cow, and when the little boy stood, the bull took action.  First with some strong bugling.

And, then he exhibited just how fast and threatening a mature bull can be.  The spike retreated near the river, with the bull glaring at him.

Satisfied, the bull trotted back to the harem.

He's just a manificent animal.  At some point, probably hours past sunrise, I had all the photos I could want (for now) and the herd was retreating back into the trees from the meadow to chew their cud and sleep through the midday.  We headed on to the famous Hayden Valley that stretches upstream along the Yellowstone River toward Yellowstone Lake.

So far, we had only seen solitary bull bison, and photographers led me to expect herds of bison at Hayden, maybe a bear or a wolf.  (No bear or wolf showed.) We found bison as hoped, all very close and sometimes on the road.

In the interest of family harmony, I need to attribute this photo to my spouse, Pam. It is perhaps the first time she had used one of my cameras, and the results were pretty good. 

There is a key point to the photo above.  Bison, and other big animals, have the right of way, always. That is something the driver of this car failed to understand.  This bull's tonage is close to that of the car, and his construction is a bit more substantial.

So, there were so many bison around the road that a ranger arrived to manage the situation when cars stopped in the traffic lane or people failed to move behind a car to let the bison through to the  other side of the road.  The rangers have reduced the number of gorings to well under a fifth of what they were in 1994.

Now, I could get close images of bulls and cows that showed the incredible texture of the bisons' winter coats.

And, there were nice groups of bulls, cows, yearlings and calves.

 The smallest calf is called a "red dog" due to the initial coloration at birth.  This one was born much too late in the summer and faces a poor outcome once winter arrives.

While we were  in the Hayden Valley, the herd continued to shift back and forth across the road, sometimes coming very close so that with no cropping of the image, the resulting image was very detailed.

Such big brown eyes, and so stoic.  I can imagine how it will look in the middle of one of the Yellowstone's hard winters.  Wish I could see that.

We returned to our meadow on the Madison River that evening, and the elk were again there in the steady rain.  I set up under the rear door lid on the rental car, and got some more nice photos.  As a bonus, a lady began to fish right in front of us, keeping an eye on the elk.  She caught one very nice trout while most watched the elk. She released it.

The next morning was our day to return home.  The meadow was empty and we could only see some cows on the distant mountain plus a few cows across the road.  I was a bit surprised to see that the cows were still nursing the calves in late September.

Again, using tips from other photographers, we decided to leave Yellowstone and return to Pocatello via the Tetons where there was a good spot to find a large bull moose. The report was correct, and after watching him through a screen of willows, he finally  moved in plain sight just some five minutes after we needed to leave if we were to return the rental car on time.  This was too good to listen to the rental car clock. Better to have the photo and hope the rental company forgives an hour past the return, which they did.

As I watched this bull watch us, I remembered the old joke that I don't need to outrun the bull, just the lady next to me.  And no, that lady is not my wife. This is another lady.

We had a wonderful trip. Late September is absolutely one of the best times to visit Yellowstone.  Our time with our friends in Pocatello was a delight, and we almost forgot how badly Delta treated us on the flight west.

Now, about next year....