Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Once, Present and Future Bull

Nowhere is the march of time more apparent than in the career of a male elk.  Nearly his entire life is controlled by his genes and their demand that he pass them on to the next generation.  I went back to observe the elk in northwest Pennsylvania this week. Late the first evening, we located the Q-Bull alone in a field.  He's been dominant in past years.  His rack is really heavy.   At first he was lying in the grasses and loudly bugling. That seemed unusual.

I'd not previously seen a bull on the ground while bugling, and his size suggested he should have cows.  But when he arose, he was clearly lame in one hind leg.  Maybe he lost a battle with a younger bull, or was just past his prime.  He's truly the old bull and unable to hold on to a harem.

The next morning it was foggy.  We located a group of eight cows and calves, but no bull was present.  Some bugling to the west caught my attention, and through the trees toward the next field, I saw the honey color of an elk.  Quickly moving closer, I was just in time to see this harem's bull coming back to his ladies.

Look at all the grass and mud on his tines. He's been wallowing and marking territory. He quickly rejoined the eight cows and calves.  Back from his little excursion, the bull will bugle - I guess as another proclamation of his territory. The sound of a big bull is both melodic and powerful.  Surely it works to intimidate smaller bulls.

You may think he is king, but in truth this is a matriarchal society, and she is the boss.  He may be a bully, but he only follows her lead.  On this morning, I watched the bull try to take the cows off to the creek crossing and become agitated when the cows wanted to go up the hillside.  He went so far as to chase a cow, but she evaded his attempts.

He ran about but the cows seemed quicker, and pushing one cow would have left the others to wander away.  The net result was that he stalked around a summer cabin and showed his displeasure.  When the last cow disappeared into the hillside, he followed.

In about seven days of watching these Pennsylvania elk, the final day was the first time I have seen spike bulls.  (Do they stay out of the way when the big bulls are all charged up in the rut?  Maybe.)  In the fog, we found a group of cows and calves with no bull. There were two spike bulls, still in velvet. There were female calves of the same size, so I am inclined to think they are calves of this year. It is interesting to see the difference in overall body size and spikes. 

So, there you have the once, the present and the future bulls in the elk society.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Way Home Leads through Maine

There is seemingly always something new to see in Maine.  So, our way home from Newfoundland opened the door for seeing an old favorite on Mt. Desert Island and finding a new favorite.  The 1780 Selectmen's Building is situated beside a small pool on the brook draining from Somes Pond.  The graceful bridge over the water is unlike any other I have seen.  I stop to see it every time.

In August, Mt. Desert, and specifically Acadia National Park, is jammed with visitors.  It seemed half again as many people as just ten years ago. We went looking for something less visited.  My notes contained a comment from a friend about Thuya Gardens in Asticou just above Northeast Harbor.  We found a small parking lot on Route 3 for Thuya and climbed the rocky path towards the garden.  Pausing at an opening, we had a view of  Northeast Harbor. It was full of recreational boats and large yachts that contrasted with the harbors in Newfoundland that sheltered working fishery boats. I wondered how well Thuya would match our expectations.  The gateway to Thuya welcomed us with a beautifully carved wooden door.  The motifs on the door suggested that we had found what we hoped to see.

Once inside we found lush beds of colorful flowering plants. They were arranged with consideration for height and colors.  Pink dahlias immediately caught my attention.  I wondered if the summer of foggy weather had kept the plants from withering under a hot sun.

 Large yellow lilies were complemented by a sweep of blue beneath them.

 Pink dahlias stood beneath lilies sporting a pink that went to a deeper red.

There was more just a short way along the bed.  Purple Coneflowers were in bloom; they must have offered the sweetest nectar in the garden, given the variety of butterflies visiting them.  This Painted Lady was methodically working the entire flowerhead.

It was encouraging to see a few Monarch Butterflies on the Purple Coneflowers. Thuya actually had a small butterfly garden rich with milkweed for the Monarchs.

The time passed quickly at Thuya.  There was so much to explore, and the butterflies competed for our attention.  At such a garden, there is the big picture that you first encounter.  Then smaller details capture the attention like a butterfly on a bloom. The lilies themselves are interesting in their composition like this one.

The morning passed and we left for a break. Nearby, we explored Asticou Azalea Gardens with the commitment to return in late May when they are in peak display.

Without actually entering the national park, we had an entertaining visit to Mt. Desert Island absent the crowds. It was time to head towards home.

The next morning we headed south with a brief stretch break at Rockport. The day was foggy and the wharf in the harbor offered a view of a nice two-masted schooner at dock on a calm and foggy morning.

Again, I realized why so many people choose to spend their summers in Maine, and even more stay the entire year.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Bird Cliffs at Cape St. Mary's

When we left Gros Morne, we had an all day drive to nearly the opposite end of Newfoundland.  Three years ago, I had grudgingly accepted Pam's suggestion to make a long drive from Bonavista to the bird cliffs at Cape St. Mary's.  We arrived on a perfect day with the sun and the wind aligning to deliver a steady stream of Northern Gannets landing sometimes only 40 feet away. They were beautifully illuminated in warm sunlight, and the strong wind held their landing speed down to where they just hovered in front of us. This photo from 2014 tells the viewer why we returned in 2017.

Northern Gannets are not a small bird.  They are 3 feet long and sport a 6-foot wingspan.  They are graceful flyers with a handsome head featuring a blush of color on the throat.  

There are reportedly in excess of 25,000 Northern Gannets plus thousands of Kittiwakes and Murres on the bird cliffs at Cape St. Mary's.  The gannets nest densely on the less vertical parts with the other birds at lower levels on very narrow ledges. It is about a 1-1/2 mile trail from the visitor center to the prime viewing area.  You hear them long before you get there. They are not, however, capable of song. It is best described as cacophony.  There is no way that many birds would ever synchronize their vocalization, and they offer no melody to make that possible.

There is a lot of flying from the colony as one of each pair is usually away at sea fishing for the hungry chick. A closer look suggests how dense the arrangements are.  There is a lot of squabbling.

There is a good half hour walking path to see the colony; once there you are on a narrow promontory that is very close on both sides to nesting birds.  

Newfoundland in summer is nearly synonymous with fog, so we scheduled three full days with the hope that one of those days would be clear, and the wind and sun direction acceptable. The first full day confirmed my expectation. Though only a stone's throw from a high a rock pinnacle packed with birds, the fog offered observation but limited photos.

I had a plan for fog.  Birder sightings for Cape St. Mary's highlighted Horned Larks around the visitor center.  So, fog merely shifted my attention.  Watching Horned Larks, I could see two things.  First there were juveniles out of the nest and foraging, and there were also adults collecting many insects in their beaks. Some were still feeding young in the nest. Second, I realized that the best way was to pick a spot with good openings, and let them come to me. It proved fruitful.

People passing me would ask what I was doing. My answer elicited no interest in something as small as a lark. But to me, it was pretty exciting to have one work close to me and take a nice perch on a rock.  Just wish I could have been there when they were doing mating displays.

On our last full day, the afternoon offered an ideal sun and wind combination.  For two hours, the action was intense as the Northern Gannets approached like aircraft lining up for a runway.  Here you can see two birds on parallel runway approaches, just like at Kennedy Airport.

Of course, there were hundreds of runways available; I had to pick just a few landing spots and recognize when a bird was on one of those. At the end, I was drained but happy.

To the observer, the landing spot is pretty small as the bird glides over dozens of other nests with each nest ready to jab a beak at the offender.

When the returning partner arrives there is a warm welcome including some wing flapping and billing plus some head bobs.  It only take a few minutes for the waiting partner to head out to sea. 

In early August, the chicks are mostly big blobs of down with a few feathers beginning to show.

The nest is just some collected seaweed or grass on hard rock.  I was pretty lucky to actually catch a shot of one bird bringing a fresh supply in.  When I looked at some other nests, I realized it was quickly being soiled by the chicks. Sometimes the chicks were not the clean white fluff ball you see above.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Cape St. Mary's. Our cottage in nearby Branch looked out on a harbor with many fishing boats.  On an evening walk down to the boats, I met a local woman with extensive bird knowledge. 

We found that having a kitchen made for easier timing when early or late conditions were best for photography or a sightseeing excursion.

The next morning, we had an unhurried departure towards the return ferry in Argentia.  Naturally, it was foggy. On the way, we pulled off the highway at Gooseberry Beach and found a quiet beach with a crooked piece of driftwood. Two local ladies walking the beach saw our New York plates, and we had a nice conversation combining bits about Newfoundland and New York.  People are so friendly there, just like home.

The return ferry to Nova Scotia was another huge ship, and this time our car was not in the bowels of the ship.  We had a good nights rest with the muffled sound of the ship's foghorn often reaching our cabin.   Next, it was on to a stop in Maine for a beautiful garden on Mt. Desert Island.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Along the Way to Newfoundland

Our summer of travel concluded with a road trip to Newfoundland with the usual stop in Freeport for the LL Bean store, plus a few discoveries along the way. On day two we were near Lubec at the border with New Brunswick.  Rising early, I watched the sun rise over Campobello Island across the Lubec Narrows. As the sun rose directly behind the Mulholland Point Light, a lobster boat motored past on the way to run their traps.  Serendipity.  This is now on my list for a longer explore including Campobello.

Our drive north took us to Hopewell Rocks on Fundy Bay.  The huge tides there cycle up and down on tall pillars of aggregate.  We'd been there decades ago with good memories.

It seemed much more crowded now  and  more like an amusement park. It was less enjoyable this time.  I guess the first time was enough.  We moved on to our appointment with the ferry to Newfoundland.

Arriving in North Sydney, the sight of the MV Highlanders is impressive.  At 200 meters, it is the largest ferry I have seen.  It has eight decks including four for vehicles.  It can load and unload from both bow and stern at two different levels. We made the mistake of being early, which put us on board first and thus in the lowest level - which I dubbed "the catacombs". It was pretty tight down there.

But I make no complaints.  The accommodations were superb. Our cabin overlooked the bow directly below the ship's bridge where we could watch the loading process.  After a restful night with calm seas, we were in Port aux Basques and ashore in time for a nice breakfast in town.

Our first of two objectives was Gros Morne National Park.  To understand why we went there, see this link: 

Up early on our first full day, I explored a lighthouse at Lobster Cove just outside Rocky Harbor.

The lighthouse grounds were well restored, giving a feel for their history.  Coming over the rise from the beach, one found the route to the light keeper's garden.

The day continued with an early start towards Western Brook Pond. This is a stranded fjord.  Once open to the sea when oceans were higher, its mile wide glacial moraine now seals it off from the sea.  There are excursion boats hauled there on sleds over the moraine in deep winter.  With no road, we had a 3/4 hour walk to get to the docks.  Along the way, I found this odd fellow hanging out at a viewing platform.  He seems to be everywhere I go.

As you trek to the pond, the massive walls of the fjord reveal themselves across one of the many shallow ponds on the moraine. 

Once at the boat, and looking upwards, the fjord gains its true character.  There are massive hard rock walls on both sides.  (Here is a great photo that Pam made of the place.)

Along the way, the rock walls offer an infinite range of features, some capturing our tendency to see figures in the stone.  Can you see the man's face in this wall?  (Left of center looking right.)

There are more curiosities to be found at Gros Morne.  Just north of Western Brook Pond are some sea arches that seem out of place being surrounded by glacial moraines.

There is another side to Gros Morne. Across Bonnie Bay to the south of our cabin in Rocky Harbor, lie small fishing villages and the expansive Tablelands.  At Woody Point, I found one of the small lights guiding boats into the bay's west arm.

These are active fishing towns.  We ventured to Trout River where the stacks of wooden lobster traps reminded me that some still do things the traditional way.

No visit to Gros Morne is complete without a visit to the Tablelands.  Several hundred million years ago, a tectonic plate collision forced up material from the earth's mantle. As you enter the elevated valley, you see hard rock to one side and crumbly yellowish-red rock to the other. This softer rock, called mafic rock is peridotite thrust up from the earth's mantle. It is low in calcium but high in magnesium and iron with a toxic mix of heavy metals.

The plant community is drastically different.  We walked a small loop and found hundreds of Pitcher Plants. They love alkaline conditions and thrived wherever there was a water.

Along this little-used trail were unusual rocks. The rock appeared to be glazed with a blue-black lacquer. It is serpentinite, so called because it resembles snake skin.  Get this, it is a hydration and metamorphic transformation of ultramafic (mantle) rock.  Beautiful.

We spent three full days at Gros Morne and could have explored more, but we had a full day's travel to relocate to Cape St. Mary's for some serious birding time.   I will be back with a second part devoted to that.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Discovering Iceland- A Fine Conclusion

Our trip benefited from fine weather.  Temperatures were around 50°F with no heavy rain and only a few truly windy days. Continuing along Highway 1, the Ring Road circling the island, we were on the coastal planes, shadowed by the massive Vatnajökull Glacier. In places there were fertile fields of grass with cattle, sheep and horses.  Other sections were large expanses of lava rubble that spoke of large floods unleashed when volcanic activity melted a part of the ice until the water broke loose in a wall of water and rock.

Making an early start on the next day, our tour van pulled onto a rough road that suggested a gravel mine to me. It was a birding detour. We saw Skuas, called the pirate of the seas.  Not at all attractive.  Try as best we could, we could not even get flight photos.  Not very exciting.  We continued walking along the road with the van trailing us, and it did become more interesting as Golden Plovers were seen. 

They were acting in a way that suggested there were chicks present.  This was getting better.  With time a little chick was seen. It was amazing; it was already showing some of the adults' brilliant patterning.

We did not stay close to the plovers very long and were soon on our way north towards a glacial tongue at Svinafellsjökull.  To be honest, I took this photo so I could spell it and find it on the map later.

It was a good place to walk up on a moraine for our photo to send home. In all of the daily hurrying about, it is easy to miss the signs and the family photos.  Once home, you can be at a loss for spelling Svinafellsjökull.  It doesn't exactly roll off of my tongue, and I am sure I mispronounced 100% of the Icelandic names. You would laugh at what I go through to get the Icelandic alphabetic characters into the text.

Leaving the glacier, we only went about 11 kilometers before another unexpected detour, this time off to the left and close to the mountain.  Hofkirkja is the sole remaining sod church in Iceland.  That is one excellent reason to stop.  The second pretty good reason is that it has a restroom in a nice grove of trees nearby. 

This was so beautiful that I am tempted to break my rule to only show one photo of a given attraction.  This was in my top ten of the entire trip. 

There was also another stop for Icelandic horses.  Never happened when I had an apple with me.  No matter though, they were glad to get a little head rub.

All along the drive, there were these massive tongues of glacial ice breaking through the mountains on the way to the sea.  The black streaks of rock in the ice speak to the forceful attack on the mountain by the glacier's mass.

We passed the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon to the Hali Country Hotel that would be home for two nights. We did not stop at the lagoon initially, in favor of an evening shoot with the best light. Also in my top ten for the trip was my lunch of marinaded Arctic Char.  Heavenly.

We filled the afternoon with an excursion farther north to a black sand beach at Stokksnes.  The sea breeze was kicking up the fine black sand; I limited my photography out of fear of where the sand might enter.  This was the site of a US radar station during the Cold War. I had to wonder if assigning someone there was sometimes a sort of punishment, especially in the dark winter.

The real highlight of the day was after dinner. Even at 22:00 in the evening, the parking lot at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon was packed.  The low evening sun shown through the many small bergs stranded in the lagoon, as the tide began to rush out through a small opening to the ocean. No other glacial lagoon connects to the tidal cycle.

Down on the edge of the lagoon, a photographer can find a rich selection of ice forms as the tide shifts grounded bergs and floats others out to sea.

Getting low can yield many nice compositions that border on abstract.

The contribution of reflections add interest too.

While I was doing this, Pam was wandering around the lagoon's outlet as the tidal flow was increasing.  The shapes of the little bergs caught her interest, and then she spied a seal active in the outflow.  In a magical moment, a berg in the shape of a seal swept past while in the distance the dark outline of a real seal surfaced.

It was getting close to 23:00 and the parking lot was emptying, but most of us headed to the ocean beach.  Some of the bergs being swept out to sea are grounded on the beach.  Using a very slow shutter and getting very close with a wide angle lens makes for some ethereal images with creamy water surrounding crystal ice forms. This is mesmerizing.

Then, I realized it was almost midnight and most were ready to find the hotel.  Oddly, on one side of the mountain to the left was the glow of the setting sun, and to the right side was an early glow where the sun would appear a few hours later.  

Tomorrow was our last full day before returning to Reykjavik, and we aimed to make the most of it. We backtracked on Highway 1 to Svartifoss.  It required a steep 1-1/2 mile march up.  I say "march" because we wanted to get there before the buses from Reykjavik arrived.  Svartifoss is a straight plunge of 65 feet off of a beautiful wall of hexagonal basalt columns. It was worth the effort.

Along the trail near the falls, there were profuse beds of Wild Geranium, just like at home.

Returning from Svartifoss, we took a rough road to see the face of Fajarsalon glacial lagoon.  The panorama view is too wide to include the complete view.  In the middle of the glacier's face are two extremely tiny dark spots. Those are large zodiac boats on an excursion to see the face.  It's the only way I know to suggest the size of the glacier.

Our stretch of good weather was coming to an end, as was the trip. The next morning was a long drive in rain to Reykjavik.  We made another stop in Vik, and saw the sea stacks from a new perspective.  

 The rain brought in some waves. I love the coast when it gets stormy.

A rainy day seemed perfect for concluding our trip on the island.  We arrived at the Fosshotel Rekjavik with time to prepare our baggage for an early morning bus to the airport, and then gather for a farewell dinner.  Our companions and leaders were fine company, and the people in Iceland delightful.

Asked about my favorite of the trip, I could not pick one.  I'll go for the top ten:
  • Gullfoss -   are real brute of a waterfall
  • an Atlantic Puffin with a beak full of Sand Eels
  • A Golden Plover and its fuzzy little chick
  • Haifoss -  the high twin falls are spectacular
  • Hofkirkja- the last sod church
  • an overnight on Flatey Island
  • Red-throated Loon and chick
  • Arctic Char in all possible presentations
  • Black-tailed Godwit
  • Our travel companions
It will be difficult to top this trip in the future.  But, I will keep looking for something at least equal.

Thanks for your interest.