Tuesday, October 9, 2018

When it rains, fungi reign!

It has been a really, really wet time around here.  Even the waterfalls are too full for good photography.  Muddy water is not too pretty.  It's been a perfect time to pursue the many beautiful mushrooms emerging from the hidden world of fungi beneath.  There are some good images to share. I'll include a few tips to documenting the fungi you see with a camera.

The colorful fungi quickly attract my attention as I roam the woodlands.  These are barely more than one inch high.  To show them, the camera must be low.  It is just like photographing small children.  The camera needs to be at their level to avoid images of the tops of the mushroom caps.

And, since there was not much light deep in the forest, the exposure was slow, requiring the camera to be motionless. In this case, the shutter was at 1/15 second.

These 'shrooms were too low to even use a tripod, so I improvised.  The camera is supported by some pieces of old towel carried to dry gear when it rains. Once the camera is in position, and the rear screen shows a good focus, I am ready to use a little trick.  I use the shutter delay normally used so the photographer has time to quickly join the group of people in the photo.  This avoids shaking the camera when pressing the shutter.  It works perfectly.

You can do this.  Fill a small bag with something like dried beans and cradle your camera in it.  Be sure the camera is not too close to focus.  Set the timer like I did, and you have it.

On this day, I continued my exploration and soon spotted a violet color on the forest floor.  It is a coral mushroom.  Beautiful.  I was lucky with this fungi, and could support the camera on a tripod for another slow shutter in the dark woods.

While I am roaming the woods, I sometimes come upon a cluster of shelf mushrooms on a fallen tree. In this case, I simply pulled out my smartphone and quickly captured the rich patterns and colors.  These are commonly called turkey tail mushrooms. Unlike the ephemeral forms, the shelf mushrooms do not quickly disappear, but they do look their best when they are wet.

The variety of fungi forms is part of what excites me during my quests.  This one was a big surprise to me.  Beyond the colors, the form seemed to match the famous line of "E.T. phone home."

I  will admit to having dug out part of the leaf litter to get my camera in position for the above image.  I simply would not be satisfied with a poor composition for this fungi.

Most of my photos use natural lighting, but sometimes the underneath of the cap mushrooms is just too dark.  I came upon a cluster of finely textured mushrooms on a fallen poplar tree. In the next case, I popped a little bit of flash from beneath to bring out what I was seeing.

Getting low is a constant aspect of this pursuit.  There is another annoying way to get low.  It calls for turning the center column of a tripod upside down and hanging the camera on it.  The annoyance comes from working with the camera upside down as seen below.

With a little practice, the benefits are worth the effort, and really, it soon becomes very manageable. Here is the result of the setup shown above.

The exposure was 1/4 second, so even if I laid flat on the ground and hand held the camera, the photo would have been blurry.

On a recent morning at the Ringwood Preserve near Freeville, I put the upside down approach to the test.  This pair of large mushrooms were on a steep hillside.  The upside down approach allowed me to work without sliding down the bank.

This time, I used another trick to balance the light on the underside of the caps.  I put my cell phone on the flashlight mode, and lightly painted the caps with soft warm light. I like it better than using a flash because I can see the best position before triggering the shutter.

As I gathered my gear to leave Ringwood preserve, I should have known something would capture my attention. This may be the same mushroom I previously found on the poplar log.

Here, I also used my cell phone flashlight to paint the underneath of the cap.  It was a good find.

For the  photographers, I hope a few of these techniques are of value.  Photographer or not, I also hope these images inspire you to take a closer look at the fall mushrooms that are present present.  I even find them in my garden and lawn right now.

Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Bears Galore

After 2-1/2 hours of following the pod of Humpback Whales in Chatham Strait on the Westward, it would seem the day's appetite for Alaska wildlife was satisfied.  Reaching Pavlov Bay, the Westward anchored, and we boarded the skiff. The plan was to observe some bears from the skiff.  Our naturalist, Carolyn, steered the zodiac up a small river towards a set of small drops exposed by the low tide.  Because of the low tide, the river had trapped the returning salmon in pools scattered along the way to higher falls with a fish ladder to the right side.  Carolyn anchored the skiff so that we all had a good view.  Midway towards the steep falls, in the pools, was a large Brown Bear sow with two cubs.

She was catching a few salmon, usually back in the shadows where we could not see clearly.  In all cases, the sow gave the fish to her cubs - leaving few scraps for the gulls.

Shortly, a fourth bear appeared at the top of the high falls. It was a bit smaller and leaner than the sow.

Junior crossed the falls and disappeared into the forest, reappearing later near the sow. There seemed to be a tolerance by the sow for this new arrival, maybe somehow related to her.  Yet, the bear did keep it's distance, and soon crossed to the farther side to search in the small pools of water.

 Suddenly, the bear burst forward some twenty feet and grabbed a fish.

In no time, that salmon was consumed, and the bear drifted back towards the sow.  She may have been one of her offspring from a few years earlier, but the sow still was not entirely welcoming the competition for the salmon to feed her cubs. So she set some limits, it would appear.

Two days later, dawn found the Westward anchored in a hidden cove.  Awake early, I went up on deck to find a pair of Bald Eagle perched along the shore. One bird launched into the classic glide toward a target near the boat.  It was successful, and arose with a nice fish.

This would prove to be the beginning of a very rich day of wildlife viewing.  Chef Traci again provided an extraordinary breakfast that day.

Ham and Broccoli Hash with Soft Poached Eggs, Cinnamon Spiral Rolls, Apples and Grapes.  

We were all energized for a rewarding morning excursion to the nearby salmon hatchery at Hidden Falls. 

There are no fish farms in Alaska.  This stream has a falls too high for salmon to climb. This (and other) hatcheries raise wild salmon fry that are released to supplement the population from those natural runs.  This takes pressure off of the wild runs.

The salmon come up a series of falls into a pond where they are harvested for eggs and sperm, respectively. The fertile eggs are cultured and transferred later into tanks using a constant flow of fresh water.  The end result is that these salmon go to sea like the wild run, and come to market as tasty as those from a natural spawn.  The bear are satisfied, too.

The Brown Bears line up along the cascade, and some sit at the entrance to the chute, intently watching.

 When successful, the first priority for a subordinate bear is to head for the forest.

There are dominant sows with cubs to feed.  The top bear was this huge sow with four cubs. No one argued with her.  It is very rare for a female to have four cubs survive.

The cubs were adorable. Momma was a strict disciplinarian. Perhaps this explains how she kept all four alive.

Brown Bears can also show strong social bonds like this sow and her sub-adult.

 The cub needed some cuddle time it would appear.

Some of the lone bears chose to enter the water and search underwater for the salmon.

Sometimes they succeeded.

The morning passed too quickly; eventually it was time for Captain Bill to motor back to the dock to retrieve us.

It had been exciting to watch these twenty-one bears with so much activity, it was hard to decide where to observe.  Lunch was a potpie with elk, roasted root vegetables and braised greens.  Cruised that afternoon.  What a day!


Friday, September 14, 2018

Whale, Whale, Whale....wasn't this a find morning!

Day three on the Westward began quietly in a calm anchorage.  Lifting anchor, our boat continued east on Peril Strait.  The boat then turned north on Chatham Strait with the intention of finding Brown Bears during low tide at Pavlov Bay. There was, however, a diversion when Captain Bill announced whales spouting on the west shore, maybe a mile ahead. Once closer, we had our first good view.

What followed was two and a half hours of tracking a group of eleven Humpback Whales.  They repeatedly dove, located feed fish, encircled them in a bubble net, tightened the net and then swept upward with mouths widely open, erupting on the surface.

The gulls seemed to have knowledge of where the whales would appear and converged in the general area beforehand.  Quickly, the whales would settle down, often with pectoral fins protruding from the sea.  One imagines that they are laying out to filter water through their baleen and swallow the small fish.   The gulls swarmed about looking for stunned fish on the surface.

The whales regrouped and likely recharged their air supply.

The cycle continues as the whales begin to dive again.  It seems a deep dive is marked by the tail lifting high as the whales descend for another hunt.

On deck, passengers wait and watch the gulls to provide a clue. We got better at recognizing this, and often found ourselves watching in the right spot.  (Of course, Captain Bill likely was more on top of this than we were.)  It was spectacular.

It is tempting to believe that local residents become less excited about the sight of Humpbacks sweeping up from the depths.  This fishing boat dispels that idea.

The fisherman immediately turned his boat, stopped and appeared with a camera.  He did not chase the pod for hours like we did, but it surely excited him.

But, after countless repeats and considering our intent to get to Pavlov Bay at low tide, even the most enthusiastic photographer admitted it was time to move on.  So we said farewell to a final diving whale.

Captain Bill said we had seen more bubble-feeding events than they usually find in an entire season.  Once again, it seems we have good fortune on our travels.  Anyway, bears are next.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Alaska at a Civilized Pace

John Muir said to explore at a saunter, meaning walk at a leisurely pace.  Pam and I spent a week on the nautical equivalent of a saunter between Sitka and Petersburg aboard the wooden 86' Westward.  Built on the form of a salmon troller, but reinforced for exploring icy Alaskan water, she cruises at a leisurely 6-1/2 knots.There are four twin staterooms below for passengers and on the main deck a midship salon with a fireplace.  The stern is an enclosed lounge/dining area.  She rides smoothly.  Her size allowed access to locations impossible to larger ships. She is a beauty.  Captain Bill Bailey is continuing a 94 year legacy of care for the Westward.

Central to the Westward's character is the original 4 cylinder Atlas diesel. (That's the engineer in me speaking.) The engine is so efficient it cruises for an hour on only 3 gallons of diesel.  Here, Captain Bill is going through the start-up, including manually oiling over 100 points.  He used compressed air to turn the engine and start cylinder one, and then he pulls in the other cylinders.  All of the push rods and such are exposed, giving us a fascinating view in a short video.  It is manually lubricated every 3 hours. Still running well after 94 years.

A typical day on the Westward includes time on the deck watching the scenery and looking for whales while the venerable Atlas diesel saunters to our next stop, or maybe a quiet cove for the night.

Sometimes we saw a passing tug hauling freight north from Seattle. This is the Western Mariner northbound on a misty afternoon. Don't be fooled, this is a brute of an ocean-going tug capable of facing 50 knot storms in winter. The Western fleet is famous for its ships and its  service to Alaska.

Other times we passed fishing boats such as the Matilda Bay.

On day 3, as we headed south on Chatham Strait near the Peril Strait, the captain announced  whales bubble-feeding along the shore.  For the next 2-1/2 hours, Captain Bill kept us close to a group of eleven Humpback Whales.  It was wild. They passed so close once that we felt the spray as one whale spouted. 

The whales dive to locate small fish, likely herring, and blow bubbles in a circle around the school.  They circle and tighten the ring, then they drop below the school and rush upward with jaws open wide. The gulls swarm to grab any stunned fish.  

We also boarded a skiff to go ashore or cruise a secluded area. One morning, we went ashore at the Hidden Falls Fish Hatchery. The salmon were running, and that meant Brown Bears.  We saw twenty-one including this huge sow with four cubs. They were about 80' away.  No fear, salmon is on their minds.

The tide was low. Salmon could not get farther upstream. If a smaller bear caught a fish, it wisely headed for the forest before a dominant bear could take it.  Otherwise, the big sow would act like a ruthless tax collector.  Survival has no room for manners, particularly if you have four cubs.  

Another highlight of the trip was visiting two glaciers.  The first, Baird Glacier, no longer reaches the tide water.  The skiff took us up the swiftly moving outflow for a hike. Periodically, the glacier backs up melt water, and it grows until it surges out in a strong flood that remakes the land.  We were walking out on new land with blooming fire weed, mosses and alders.

Up close, Baird Glacier is heavily laden with crushed rock, providing evidence of its assault on the mountains.  The steady wind coming down off of the glacial ice provided the only truly cold experience of the trip.

That night, we were in the appropriately named Scenic Cove for another fine meal. We began with pumpkin seed, green chili and posole soup.  Next was shrimp-filled roasted poblano with avocado puree, shrimp and smoked paprika oil.  Desert was chocolate and morila chile souffle, canela crema, cacao nibs and cactus pear syrup.  Now, you may think that we gained a lot of weight on this trip, but not so.  The portions emphasized quality. All of the items avoided every food allergy.  Our chef, Tracie Triolo, was a genius.
The next morning we headed for the tidal LeConte Glacier.  It became a misty rain as we approached.   The steep shores had numerous cascades of water that stretched up into the clouds. A strong cold mist blew in our faces, but our attention was fixed on a pinnacle of ice that was nearing collapse.  As the glacial ice pack pushed to sea, small avalanches of ice rolled off its edges. Here is a video of what we waited for.


That evening, we docked in Petersburg and began to prepare for our departure.  It was a memorable trip thanks to the ship's crew of Captain Bill Bailey, Chef Tracie Triolo and Naturalist Caroline Olson. They kept us safe, comfortable and well-fed. 

Our photo leader, Wendy Shattil, was a valuable resource for everyone, regardless of photographic skills.  Her evening programs incorporating our daily images were fun, and built our skills.  She helped us process photos, stepped in when a camera or a photo was being difficult and, along with Caroline, kept us on track when afield.