Monday, December 19, 2016

The Best of 2016

Here is a summary of what I consider my best of 2016.  One regular theme in my nature photographer's group is the importance of picking one's best image of a subject.  It's a great discipline.  I will admit it is difficult to eliminate a photo when some special attachment is there, but, here goes.

 This is at Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland, FL.  The adult Barred Owl on the right was preening its fledgling owlet. The behavior was so tender. Unforgettable.

 The white morph of the Reddish Egret reminds one of a ballet dancer when it prances across the shallows scaring up small fish.  The wings are raised high to reduce glare on the water.  Photographed at Fort DeSoto Park near Tampa, FL.

 The Roseate Spoonbill acquires its pink color from the shrimp it eats.  They are a large, graceful flyer.  Photographed on Tampa Bay.

From a distance, I saw two large male Wild Turkeys  escorting a flock of hens at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. Judging their direction of travel, I hurried to the middle of a large meadow and waited. They came very close to me.  As the boys trailed the hens,  they were displaying their vigor to each other.  Eventually, the other tom could not flare his tail feathers completely. He had lost the contest and retreated, leaving this male to control the flock.

I staked out a favorite perch for this Belted Kingfisher at a nearby marsh.  When the bird arrived, I locked the tripod on my composition and fired a burst of exposures at the first hint of movement.  With two good images separated by only 0.1 second, I layered them to show the dynamics of how the bird launches towards its prey.

The Eastern Towhee is a prolific songster in the spring.  I was attracted by the way his orange sides are echoed in the newly spreading leaves beneath his breast.

I have a love affair with wild orchids, and it began with Pink Lady's Slippers. They are so sensuous and completely wild, not allowing man to cultivate them from seed.  I treat them as an anthropomorphic portrait.

Capturing a Bald Eagle in flight to  me is something on the level of hitting major league baseball pitch. Well, maybe a little easier, but its close.  No time to hesitate and a lot to consider - flight path, head angle, frontal lighting, perfect focus on the eye, accurate tracking and a really fast shutter speed.  Add a little luck and when it works, it is rewarding.

Wild Columbine present a very simple color set - red, yellow and green.  Not exotic like the orchids, but a delightful wildflower to erase the memory of winter.

I spent much of the summer stalking Green Herons on the nearby river. They are shy and unpredictable.  I was finally able to stalk this bird due to his strong focus on a school of small fish. This was my only image with its crest raised.  He appears to have caught a small walleye.

Went to see Pennsylvania's elk herd this fall during the rut.  On a foggy morning I located this huge bull.  I called him Big Nasty.  When he came out of the woods, the force of his bugling formed a cloud of steam.

Autumn is a challenge to me. The expansive landscapes just don't capture the season.  Here, the colorful leaves, the rushing water and the massive boulders  present three contrasting elements of fall in the Great Smoky Mountains.

As autumn turns into winter, the Bald Eagles congregate in large numbers on the lower Susquehanna River. Tracking the acrobatics as the birds bank to locate the fish is great practice and sometimes rewarding.  They certainly are a powerful animal.

The Finger Lakes region is rich with waterfalls.  In the fall, they are decorated with autumn's leaves.  A fortunate placement of a dead tree adds more interest as the upper falls seems to pour onto the arch of the tree.  Just like real estate, it's location, location, location.

So, these are my favorite images of 2016 minus one that I saved for last. 

This is ....  the end.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Bald Eagles on the Rocks

I take my whiskey on the rocks, an inch of the pure with a little water and some cubes of ice.  This week I took my Bald Eagles in a pretty similar way at Conowingo Dam. The first day, the wind chill was around 15°F, and it got worse on day two with winds gusting over 30 mph.

The day began benignly with a stop at Port Deposit to photograph the setting super moon.  As the sun reddened the sky, the view down the Susquehanna River towards the Chesapeake Bay was nice. There are four bridges spanning the river that carry road and rail traffic north-south.

Recall the saying "Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning"?

Oblivious to that warning, I worked on the moon set across the river.

Arriving at the dam, it was quiet except for the ever active gulls.  Well, they make for good practice before the eagles get busy.  (It is not certain that eagles will be active, because one cannot predict if fish will be coming through the turbines, or, for that matter, how active the turbines will be.)

So, I practiced on a Ring-billed Gull.  They really aren't easy since their flight can be very erratic.  Anyway, this one had good light and nice head angle.

From time to time, a Bald Eagle will launch to check out a possible fish, and that makes for good practice.  I liked this one where the eagle banked strongly to follow an object.

The bird's intensity comes through when there is good light on a sharply focused eye.

The wind  began to build and occasional fishing occurred.  This adult eagle made a catch and headed downriver trying to avoid being robbed by another eagle.  It looks like it caught a walleye pike.  Look at that beak!

At times the Bald Eagles appear so close it is difficult to keep them in the camera viewfinder.  It is at times like this when I refer to "batting practice".  There are a lot of misses and just a few which absolutely fill the image frame.  This is one of those moments.  I only cropped the sides.

Much of the bird's fishing occurs close to the dam, and the background includes the dam.  This bird spotted a stunned fish close to the turbine discharges and flew up parallel to the spillways.

My favorite of the day was this bird that came directly towards me.  The intent look on the bird's face is intimidating.

That was day one - cold with a little fishing and some flight activity. Not uncomfortable.  The next morning was an escalation.  Winds were soon in the 20 mph and plus range, giving wind chill in the 5°F area, and by 9:30 a.m. gusts were over 30 mph.  Nearly all the birds were grounded other than gulls close in to the face of the dam.  Ice was coating the rocks along the river's edge. The waves in the river above the dam were breaking over the spillways when the big gusts rolled down from the north.  Toughing it out is one thing for good photos, but this was fruitless. My finger could not feel the shutter button.   Packed up at 10:00 a.m.  As I drove over US 1 highway that crosses the river on the dam, I saw the wind shredding the tops off the wave crests. 

There will be better days to compensate for this one.


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.