Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas, One and All

Sea Ice Breakup, Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Tomorrow is Christmas, and we'll be heading out soon to spend it with family on the Oregon Coast. A week ago, however, we were busting through the pack ice in Antarctica.  As I have previously posted, the light was not always what I might have hoped, with almost constant clouds and snow. But when conditions are less-than-generous with color, it's often a good time to switch to black and white.

This image was originally shot in color, but with digital cameras it is easy to transform a dull color landscape into a rather nice b&w one. There are many ways to do it, but my technique is to simply de-saturated the color image (saving the original RAW in case I ever want to go back to color) and add needed contrast through Levels or Curves - the ideal is to create a histogram with the complete spread of gray tones from left to right (rather than bunched up in the middle). Snow, it turns out, is filled with all sorts of nuances - light and shadows - and lends itself perfectly for this kind of treatment.

Enough Tech Talk - go spend some time with your loved ones, and stay warm...

Nikon D3, Nikkor 24-70mm lens

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Unexpected Moments

Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica)
I was pleased to be asked to return to Antarctica this month, as a lecturer on the National Geographic Explorer. It is one of my favorite corners of the planet and the timing was good: I am working on an updated version of my 2000 book Penguin Planet and would love to include as much new material as I can. And because I have quite limited time on the Antarctic Peninsula, I thought this would give me a shot at some new images of the 3 most common penguin species found there: Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap.

There was still a lot of snow on the Peninsula this season, and many of the nesting birds were arriving at their colonies to find them still buried. Although penguins generally choose nesting sites in areas that are among the first to be snow-free, sometimes a heavy snowfall defeats them. They can't lay their eggs on the snow, and can only sit there waiting for it to melt.

This Chinstrap was doing just that, sitting on a snowbank, several feet above what he had expected would be his nest site. When I started photographing him, he was drifting in and out of sleep, and I was just about to walk on when he suddenly woke up and had a stretch, opening his mouth in a wide yawn - and twisting his body into a contortion that I had never seen before - nor thought possible.  He held it for just a second...and then promptly went back to sleep.

So although it may look like he was warning me to back off, I can assure you it was a simple, extravagant stretch - born of boredom and frustration (or so I imagine).  Whatever the emotion, it created a striking image, even if slightly weird (like a feathered ball with handles), and I was grateful for it.

Nikon D3 with 70-200mm lens

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vultures of the Sea

Northern Giant Petrel in Flight, Drake Passage
As big as an albatross, and a close relative, the giant petrel has been a constant companion on our voyage back from Antarctica. Giant Petrels are polar scavengers, eating the carcasses of  seals, whales and anything they might find at sea or on land. They can also be predators of penguin chicks and eggs.

Following the ship as we plow through the swells, petrels like these can soar effortlessly for hours, if not days, in the strong wind. This bird flew right along the ship at eye level, apparently curious, and I was able to get this portrait as he passed by the bridge wing. I used a flash to give him a little extra color in the gloomy light, and used a slightly slow shutter speed to give the background a silky motion.

With two long days at sea back to Ushuaia, photographing the world's greatest flying birds is an enjoyable distraction.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Visions of the Forest

Forest Stream, Mt. Tompotika, Sulawesi
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I spent several weeks in Indonesia, documenting diversity for a small NGO.  For the first week, I concentrated on the endangered Maleo (see below) but I also spent several days exploring the montane forests on the slopes of Mt. Tompotika, in a remote corner of central Sulawesi. With few trails, we hiked up the bed of an un-named creek, swollen with water from recent rains. Except for the stifling heat, I felt right at home in an environment that looked very much like the temperate Olympic rainforests near my home.

For this shot, my eye was immediately drawn to this cluster of leaves growing on a stream-side boulder.  Moving in close with a 17mm lens, I was able to fill the lower part of the frame with these boldly shaped leaves, and use the upper part to give a sense of the stream and surrounding forest.

The leaves were wet, however, and reflecting the silver light from the cloudy sky, so I used a polarizer to cut that glare, saturate the green, and slow down the motion of the water.

Nikon D3, with 17-35mm lens, Polarizer and tripod

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter Sunset

November 30 Sunset, Olympic Mountains
I feel lucky to travel to exotic places around the world, but I will admit that at times, I am VERY happy to be home, especially living in this beautiful corner of the world. Yes, you may think it rains all the time here (and it usually DOES in November) but we are enjoying a rare winter dry spell when the mountains gleam in the setting sun. This is the view from our dining room, and we love it more than any in the world.

Click on the image to see it slightly larger. The full size TIFF is 7 feet long...

9 images, Stitched in Photomerge in Photoshop

Monday, November 28, 2011

Action on the Sand

Male Maleo defending nesting territory
I spent much of the last few weeks in the company of wild maleos, an endangered species on the island of Sulawesi. It was hot, hard work, but I felt privileged to spend time in the company of a fascinating, lively, and slightly weird bird. As I mentioned a few days ago, maleos gather near the coast to lay their single, enormous egg in the hot sand, there to be incubated by the heat of the sun.

They spend most of their time digging, as I mentioned, which allowed me many opportunities to capture that behavior (see below) but there was more going on as well. For birds that share a communal nesting area, these guys don't seem to get along very well!  When they weren't digging their own nests, the males of each maleo couple spent a lot of time chasing away other birds that had the temerity to try and nest too close. This process put the birds in some pretty striking poses, like this male huffing himself up to look big, and scary, to another bird that strayed into "his" area.

Working with a 600mm lens in a tiny blind, I managed to get some good close-ups, but was constantly plagued by the shallow depth-of-field at that focal length. Essentially, I had to lock onto the face (since even if nothing else is sharp, the eyes must be) with my auto-focus and try and stick with it, as the birds ran circles around me and one another. In the end, I lost more pictures than I got - including some spectacular aerial fights that I just couldn't lock onto. But I still managed to come away with some nice behavioral coverage..

Dig, dig, fight, dig, dig, fight

Nikon D3 with  600mm lens

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Face in the Forest

Pallas's Tube-nosed Bat (Nyctimene cephalotes)
We tend to think of bats as cave-dwellers, gathered underground en masse only to emerge at dusk and spread across the landscape in vast numbers. So it was with some surprise that we stumbled onto this fellow, alone, hanging from a thin vine in the highland forest of Mt. Tompotika on the island of Sulawesi.  It's large eyes and small ears made it a species of fruit bat but not like any other I had ever seen.
I hoped to get a shot of it, and quickly grabbed an "insurance shot" - a poorly-composed image from ten yards away - in case it flew off as we approached. I needn't have bothered. I took a few more shots within 15 feet or so, but although he was clearly awake, he stayed put. In the end, I moved right in with my 400mm lens and got this shot, and he never budged.
Sulawesi is home to so many endemic species - things found there and nowhere else on earth - that I briefly had fantasies of having discovered a new species to science. No such luck. I showed the picture to a friend much more familiar with Indonesian wildlife - and he recognized it right away.  Nyctimene cephalotes is found in a number of islands in the region, including New Guinea. Oh well - not a new species - but a handsome little fellow nonetheless. 

Nikon D3 with 200-400 Nikkor lens

Friday, November 25, 2011

With Maleos

Big Diggers - A Maleo digs a nest
Just back this week from a 2-week trip to Indonesia, where I took part in a volunteer "Tripods in the Mud" project of the ILCP, documenting biodiversity on a part of the island of Sulawesi. (If you're not familiar with Sulawesi, go look at an atlas - it has to qualify as the weirdest-shaped island in the world.) Our work was in support of a small, but effective NGO called ALTO, the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation.

For biologists, Sulawesi is particularly important since it is the largest island in the region known as "Wallacea" named for Alfred Russel Wallace, eminent 19th century naturalist and contemporary of Darwin. Wallace traveled extensively in southeast Asia and discovered that Sulawesi and its smaller neighbors to the east, had a distinctive fauna - a blending of species from Asia and Australasia, but quite distinct from either with many endemic animals.

One of those, and one Wallace described, is the Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), found only on Sulawesi and nowhere else on earth. The Maleo is a "megapode" (literally, "big-footed"), the size of a VERY large chicken, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss and egg-collecting. So why the big feet?  Simple - for digging...

Maleos do not build conventional nests, but lay a single egg in the hot tropical sand, allowing that heat to do the incubation. Once the egg is laid, the parents abandon it to its fate. On hatching, the orphan maleo chick has to dig its way out of the sand, emerging at night, fully-feathered and capable of flight. In fact, the first thing these newborns do is fly into a tree - even though they've never seen one before.  Amazing.

ALTO was created to help save one of the last nesting areas for maleos on Sulawesi and the protection they provide has profoundly increased the breeding success of these unique birds. One of my missions on the trip was to photograph the maleos, and I spent most of a week in a small blind on the fringe of the colony.

A Really Big Hole

On the breeding grounds, maleos have one thing on their mind - digging. It becomes a reflex, an obsession, and they move vast amounts of sand with a persistence and energy that is astonishing. The process of digging six feet down in soft sand, laying an egg and then re-burying it, can take these birds 4 hours or more - all under the hot tropical sun.

Photographically, the challenge was to get a bird NOT digging - since that is about all they do.  I will come back in a day or two with some other shots as I edit them. Maybe we'll see what else they get up to...

Nikon D3 with 200-400mm lens

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More from Brazil

Swimming Brazilian Tapir, Cristalino River
 I've been home from Brazil now for several weeks, largely spent editing the thousands of shots I got over the course of a long trip. I've already posted a couple of my favorites, especially the Giant Armadillo which, although not a particularly creative image, is a groundbreaking picture of a rarely-seen species - one I was frankly thrilled to get.

During the trip, we spent 5 or 6 days at spectacular Cristalino Lodge in the southern Amazon where - despite the crippling heat - we had some wonderful wildlife sightings.  We were lucky enough to see two different Harpy Eagles, the largest new world raptor, the first I had seen in nearly 20 years. Our guide, who had been at Cristalino for almost a year, had never seen one at all until this week.  I didn't get any great pictures of the Harpies, unfortunately, but sometimes seeing is good enough...

I did manage, however, to get pictures of one of the four (!) lowland tapirs we saw in a single day along the shores of the Cristalino River.  This is my favorite shot, a portrait of a handsome adult swimming upstream, with a dangling green vine behind. It is always a pleasure to get a shot of a wild animal in which one senses that the photographer's presence has no effect on the animal's behavior. This guy hardly seemed to notice us, swam easily along the shore, and then disappeared into the forest, apparently unconcerned about us.  Magical.
Hyacinth Macaw emerges from nest, Pantanal
Hardly less magical than the tapir was the discovery of an active, and accessible,  Hyacinth Macaw nest  in the Pantanal.  Often these birds nest so high that a picture like this is impossible, but I was fortunate to have everything go my way: the nest was low, had a clear view from the ground, was in the shade (providing nice soft light) and had birds going in and out.  Our visit coincided with the beginning of the nesting season, and the birds were coming and going every few minutes, which made my job much easier than I had any right to expect!

Meanwhile, I leave this weekend for a two week expedition to Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia where I will be documenting the life history of the Maleo, an endangered megapode found only on this island and nowhere else in the world.  Wish me luck!

Nikon D3 with 300mm f2.8 lens and TC14x

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Swallow your Pride, Ask a Guide

Tropical Screech Owls, Intervales State Park, Brazil
It is easy to overlook the value of local knowledge. However, local guides, or anyone who is familiar with a place which you are seeing for the first time, can save you time, money - and steer you towards things you might never have found on your own.  That's why I always seek out local advice whenever I am shooting in a new location.

In the tropical rainforest, this is especially important since this is an environment where every living thing is dedicated to hiding. Many people walking in a rainforest for the first time will swear that the forest is empty. The animals are hard to see, cryptically colored or strictly nocturnal. The fact is, tropical forests are busy places, but it often takes experienced eyes, and a knowledge of the location, to catch a glimpse of the stealthy creatures who live there.

Consider these tiny owls, for example. No, I did not stumble onto them by accident, roosting in a dense thicket of vines. I made a point of asking my local guide, in my halting Portuguese, if he had seen any owls roosting. I know enough that many owl species tend to roost in the same, safe location every day - once they've been found, they are likely to be seen again in the same place if left undisturbed.

I was glad I asked - my guide replied that there was a pair of screech owls roosting in the tree next to his house: he sees them almost every day. So finding this wonderful pair of owls – one red, the other gray – was just a matter of stopping by his house in the afternoon. There they were, right on schedule...

There was really one angle for a picture, through a tiny opening in the leaves. It was also very dark in the tangle of leaves, so a long exposure was required. But I managed a few pictures and then retreated, feeling  sure that my disturbance had been minimal. Then again, they were sitting within ten feet of a busy parking lot - so maybe they were probably used to a lot of people.

Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 lens, 2 second exposure

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mystery in the Dark

Lights on termite mound, Pantanal, Brazil
Never believe the conventional wisdom. When we spotted these striking lights on a termite mound on our last night in the Pantanal, we were told they were caused the termites themselves, on just one or two nights a year. (I'd never heard of bioluminescent termites before, but what do I know...?)  But why?  Not for mating, like fireflies, surely. There was no Google handy out there, so I had to wait until I got home to investigate further.  And wouldn't you know it - the story was much more interesting.
The green lights we saw were the glowing abdomens of Pyrophorus, or click beetle, larvae which burrow into the edges of termite mounds and use the lights to attract other insects - as prey.  Apparently some of these glowing beetles are found in the US, in Texas and Florida.
This was a 30-second exposure at ISO 2000, so there is little depth of field, and a fair amount of noise. But it was good enough to at least capture this rarely-seen behavior - and learn a new story.

Nikon D3, with 24-70mm lens

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Back from the Heat

Giant Armadillo emerging from Burrow, Pantanal, Brazil
Finally home from a month-long sojourn in Brazil, and to be honest, I'm glad to be out of the heat. It is heading into summer in the southern hemisphere and on the dusty plains of the Pantanal, it was over 100 every day with stifling humidity. Seattle, by contrast, is delightfully cool, breezy and HOME.

It was a complex trip, working in several different biomes including the Amazon, but our major concentration was the endangered species of the Pantanal. Although this fellow coming out of his burrow looks a bit like the common Texan 9-banded armadillo, this is actually a Giant Armadillo, one of the rarest and least-known large mammals in the Neotropics. I had never seen one before - and after I took this - I had STILL never seen one.  Welcome to the world of camera traps.

The photo was made with an elaborate camera trap system I employed every night at what appeared to be occupied burrows. This was the first image taken on the first of 9 consecutive nights, and it is still my favorite.  It is an intimate look at a very rare animal (this is one of the first-ever wild shots of this behavior) looking untroubled and at ease.

It is not obvious but these animals are big: over  3 feet in length and weighing upwards of 60  pounds. They sleep up to 18 hours a day and emerge only at night - facts which help explain why even people who have lived their entire lives in the Pantanal have never seen one.

As is often the case, a week spent trying to get pictures of these secretive animals was just long enough to teach me how hard it would be to really tell their story. But I did get some ideas, and with some equipment refinements, I hope to be able to get deeper into the project when I go back next year.

Until then, I will post some more images from Brazil in the coming week or two.

Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens, Camera-trap

Monday, September 12, 2011

Heading South

Anhinga with Catfish, Pantanal, Brazil

I was in a small boat on the Rio Pixaim in central Brazil when I spotted this anhinga struggling with a small fish along the edge of the creek. It was the middle of the day, a time when I rarely even bother taking pictures, but the bird was swimming along the edge of the shadows and was illuminated by the reflected light off the midday water. The result was this surprisingly soft light on a bird I have never really worked with before.
The challenge here was keeping the bird in focus: with that thin neck, my camera kept missing the focus point and locking onto the background. Yes, I have a lot of shots of  nice crisp leaves - and a very blurry anhinga. Happiy, I got this one to work.
I leave later this week for a month in Brazil, where I will be photographing in 3 distinct ecosystems: the coastal cloud forest, the southern Amazon, and the Pantanal wetlands, where this was taken several years ago. As usual, I will be concentrating my efforts on threatened species, which, in the dwindling habitats all over Brazil, will likely be almost every animal I am likely to see.

Nikon D2X and 300mm lens

Monday, August 22, 2011

Another View

St. Helens Sunset
This was one of the last shots I took of Mt. St. Helens this week as the sun set into the haze to the west. It was as much color as I would get this night - and although I was annoyed that the light wasn't clearer, it looks nice enough here.
This is a syndrome common to photographers; rather than enjoying the moment or accepting reality, we tend to think that we've blown it, that the light sucks, that there aren't enough clouds.  Hey, photographers are never satisfied. Seeking perfection, we dwell on the inevitable flaws.
Because this is not far from my home, I console myself by thinking, "I can always go back and try again." And yes, if I had unlimited time, and money, I could keep trying until I got something truly transcendent.  But few of us have that kind of time, or money - and we're talking helicopter time here - so I may have content myself with what I have.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Return to St. Helens

Crater and Shadow, Mt. St. Helens
For some reason, I have been obsessed about Mt. St. Helens. In my last two posts, I talked about how the weather has frustrated several attempts to get the shots I wanted of this iconic mountain. Well, I had almost given up...when I saw a helicopter for hire. Yes, it was expensive, but really the only feasible way to get the shots I wanted, so I arranged a flight at sunset last night.
It was hazier than I would have liked, the light less crisp and saturated than normal, but the clouds that had toyed with the peak all day finally dissipated at sunset - so I had a clear view of the crater. Yes, the low light meant I couldn't capture the steaming lava dome on the crater floor, but it gave me the long shadow which I love - so it's a trade-off.  (Speaking of the shadow, notice how it makes it look as though the mountain still has a top!)
Having seen the mountain erupt in 1980, and flown over it just afterwards, this was a kind of home-coming. Spectacular.

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fog Race

Steam rises from Lava Dome above fog-shrouded crater,  Mt. St. Helens
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent three days trying to get pictures of Mt. St. Helens, especially in the evening, but every day had the same maddening weather pattern: cloudy in the morning, clear at mid-day, and then a rising fog in the evening. Definitely not weather to gladden the heart of a landscape photographer!  After two evenings sitting in the fog, with no view at all of the mountain, the third day promised a break in the cycle; the mountain was clear all afternoon and it looked like, for once, I might get a sunset.  Then this band of clouds began to form and started rising up the slope.  I was forced to shoot quickly, before the crater disappeared completely.

With such a long horizontal scene, I decided to create a digital panoramic using 3 or 4 single images, stitched together in the computer after the fact. Not bad, but I had dreams of much more.  I'll be back.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens : Stitched panorama

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lousy Weather above? Go Underground...

Ape Cave lava tube, Mt. St. Helens
I spent the last 3 days trying to get some decent light on Mt. St. Helens. The truth be told, it never happened: each day it would clear for a few hours in the afternoon, then cloud up again as the evening - and nice light - came and went.  Three days in a row.  Maybe I'll try again when this weather pattern moves on through.

I filled the middle of the day with exploring the area, and on one memorable morning, I hiked into one of the most astonishing underground passageways I have ever seen.  It is a lava tube, although it is so perfectly formed that it could double as a man-made highway tunnel. Lava tubes are rare in this part of the world, where the volcanos tend to explode rather than extrude flowing lava. Yet Ape Cave  is one of the longest lave tubes in the US - more than two miles long.

(Science note : lava tubes are created by very fluid lava that cools and hardens at the edges, allowing the lava inside to continue flowing inside, forming a stone tube. When the lava stops, it drains out the bottom end, leaving this remarkably uniform tunnel.)

I spent several hours in the cave, trying to sort out how best to photograph it - finally settling on the use of two flashes - one on the camera/tripod and the other in my hands. 30-second exposures allowed me time to position myself in front of the light-colored wall (where I would best show up in silhouette) and fire off a few flashes manually. It was a case of trial and error - mostly error - to get what I wanted. In a perfect world, I would have had a third flash (and a model?) in the far distant bend of the cave, but I'm content with this.

An amazing place.

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens, 2 Nikon SB-800 flashes

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Waiting for a Window

Seastacks and Arches at Dawn, Olympic Peninsula

Sometimes, pictures take planning. I have been wanting to 
photograph this location at dawn for over a year, but conditions 
have never come together…until today.  Access requires a 
minus tide at dawn, which only happens a few days a month 
if at all, as well as clear skies, which happens almost never…
Typically, when high pressure moves in to the Pacific coast, 
so does the fog.  So for weeks I have been consulting tide 
charts and NOAA weather maps, looking for the right 
combination, passing up several opportunities when, although 
the tide was right, the weather was not.
This week looked promising enough: a window of opportunity. 
The tides and timing were right, but I had to move quickly 
before the building high pressure brought the inevitable 
fogbanks. I also had to do my own weather research. The 
forecast for the coast was for mist and drizzle, but a quick look 
at the satellite pictures – and a couple of coastal webcams 
online – told a different story. The sun was shining!
Getting up at 4 am, and hiking out in the dark, I arrived before 
the first light. As it was, the fog hung just offshore, giving me 
only a few minutes of dawn before the warm light vanished in
the gloom. Still, I got some pictures I’m pleased with, and I’ll try 
again tomorrow.
My point is simply that there are dozens of tools on the internet 
that can help with planning a shoot: tide tables, weather maps, 
webcams, road condition reports. However, it is also possible to 
sit at home, staring at the computer and find reasons not to go; 
in the end, there is no substitute for simply being there.

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Life in the Rubble

Bitterroot Flowers, Cascade Mountains, WA
There is a barren ridge top about an hour east of my home where, every year, these handsome Bitterroot flowers emerge out of the rocky slope for a few brief weeks. It is one of my favorite flowers, and one of my favorite places to go.  With the heavy snows we had this past winter, most alpine flowers are peaking at least 2-3 weeks later than normal, so I delayed my visit accordingly.  Yesterday, most of the flowers had still not emerged yet, but this small cluster caught my eye, framed by the broken rubble of the talus : an astonishing expression of the tenacity of life in a hostile environment.

Nikon D3, 60mm macro lens

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Re-discovered Images

Fairy Tern on branch, Midway Atoll
I am making a concerted effort to stay home for a while this month; after two straight months on the road, I need to get caught up on editing, writing, yardwork, and...oh yeah, a social life.

One of the pleasures of having time like this is taking the occasional troll through the old slide files and finding images that I had either forgotten about or overlooked. (I edited my entire 200,000+ analog collection two years on a similar self-imposed home-exile, and discarded 90% of the slides. They were just taking up space, and, to be candid, only 10% stood out as worth saving.)

So it was that, preparing a client submission this week, I stumbled onto this image of a Fairy Tern, taken on Fuji film over a decade ago. I remember loving the curve of the branch, and the elegance of the tern's spreading wings.  Simple, but handsome. Guess I'll have to scan it!

Meanwhile, although I am not doing any major traveling until the late summer, I do have some shooting I'd like to do locally, including heading out for a few days this week to shoot on the Olympic Peninsula. I love this time of year in the temperate rainforest, and there are some minus-tides scheduled on the coast.

I know, I know... I'm supposed to be pulling out ivy, but there are limits to this exile thing.

Nikon F100, 70-200mm lens

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

With Hummingbirds

Male Allen's Hummingbird. Channel Islands
OK, I'll admit it: I've been a rotten correspondent lately, and haven't posted to this blog in weeks. I could blame my travel schedule, but it really has more to do with the fact that I haven't been terribly successful on several recent shoots. Most recently I spent a week on California's Channel Islands where I hoped to get more coverage of the endangered Island Fox.  I suppose the fact that I'm showing you a hummingbird rather than a stunning fox portrait can tell you something!  In six days I saw foxes for all of about 3 minutes, and never in a setting that worked very well.

Happily, there were other diversions, and other subjects, including these tiny Allen's Hummingbirds, which, to my delight, bathed every day in a tiny stream right next to my fox stakeout. I could while away the hours of waiting for foxes by shooting these little gems coming and going from the water. I have never spent such so much time observing hummers, and it was wonderful, especially seeing them immerse themselves in the water, bathe and drink - all in water less than an inch deep.

Photographically, the challenge was focusing on the birds, which are small and in constant motion - and getting an exposure that worked since the best light was in full shade. Fortunately I had time to try different settings, experimenting with pre-focusing - and time to simply get lucky. Luck is an inevitable part of every  successful wildlife photograph; whenever you are dealing with a live, unpredictable subject, whatever pictures you get have as much to do with luck as with skill. In this image, for example, I was focused on the bird in the water - when he popped up to hover and scan the area, he did so in the same focus plane, and stayed in sharp focus. Pure luck, and an abundance of time.

Nikon D300, 200-400mm lens with TC14x

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Madeira

Pride of Madeira flower close-up, Madeira
Just home from a month overseas, lecturing on photography aboard the National Geographic Explorer on a voyage from Madeira to Bergen, Norway with stops in the Azores and around the UK.  Interesting trip, but God-awful weather - some of the worst in 50 years.  (Just lucky, I guess.) I had hoped to maintain this blog from the ship, but I either didn't find time, or a decent internet connection.  Instead, I will try and post some images and stories now that I am home (albeit briefly).

I had never been to Madeira before, and although warm and sub-tropical, the island has very little native habitat left. It has produced at least one showy native flower - now transplanted all over the world - known as the "Pride of Madeira."  I spent some time photographing it here - only to find out that it is a weed along the California coast...

I also made a pilgrimage to the small scraps of native laurel forest, known as the Laurissilva - a World Heritage area. I only had a few hours in secondary forest, but enjoyed the antidote to the expanding ex-pat suburbs of Funchal, the main city.  Here, I shot a Lobaria lichen growing on the forest floor.
More to come.

Lobaria, Madeiran Laurissilva

Nikon D3,  60mm macro and 14-24mm lenses

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dancing Pheasant

Chinese Golden Pheasant, Tresco Isle
I have simply not been able to post regularly these past few weeks, for although we have internet access on board the National Geographic Explorer, it is both spotty and expensive.  I have another week to go, and will try to keep up, but it may have to wait until I get home.

Wildlife has been elusive this trip – a few whales and dolphins at sea, and some seabirds on offshore rocks.  But on the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast, I had an encounter with a surprising bird – a Chinese Golden Pheasant. Not native to the UK, this gaudy bird roams free on these islands, presumably to brighten up the landscape. (or maybe for hunting…)

Either way, I spent about an hour trying to get a shot of  the pheasant, with its almost impossible array of colors – and eventually got this one, a moment of bizarre behavior that shows off the birds extravagant plumage. What’s he doing? No idea – maybe reaching up to have a scratch. But it was the best shot of the day.

On to Scotland tomorrow.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Into Blue Water

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Madeira
We boarded our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, on the island of Madeira today - and set off into blue water. It didn't take long for a pod of dolphins to cross our path, anxious to play under our bow.
This is always a delight to see, but often a challenge to photograph. I know the drill : use a polarizer to cut the surface glare, darken the image using compensation to match the dark water, and shoot like mad, hoping to get something exceptional.  It didn't happen: the dolphins were there, of course, but there was just enough chop on the surface to break up the dolphins into almost unrecognizable shapes.  This one worked the best, but it is hardly a knockout.
I will have to content myself with a few decent, if unmemorable,  shots - but a fine memory, and an exhilarating day on the water. Not all bad. And there is always tomorrow,  as we sail towards the Azores.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens with polarizer

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Nice Rock...and a long plane ride

Lichen-covered Boulder, Carrizo Plain
This is a typical situation; just home from one trip with two days before I head overseas. No time to edit the last shoot, and I'm off for a month in Europe. This happens a lot, and is testimony to how easy it is to fill a calendar with no realistic idea of how long things take...

In any case, the edit of my Kit Fox pictures will have to wait now until June.  I did, however, manage to process this little nugget (OK, it's about 4 feet high) late last night, and although it is a simple picture, it works for me. It is of a single, colorful quartzite boulder in the Carrizo Plain during a gentle sunrise.  I liked the shape, the pattern, and the soft colors.

Meanwhile, I leave in the morning for the east coast, followed by a month-long series of cruises to the Azores and around the British Isles for National Geographic; I will serve as photography lecturer on board.  I will try and blog as best I can while en route, and talk about locations and images I encounter.  

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

With The Foxes

Endangered San Joaquin Kit Foxes, Carrizo Plain
I am just home from a week in the Carrizo Plain of Southern California, where I spent a week trying to photograph wild, endangered San Joaquin Kit Foxes. I had been with the urban population of these foxes a few weeks ago in Bakersfield, but this was my first experience here, in one of the last scraps of their prime habitat left in California.
I had been to the Carrizo once before many years ago and frankly, I thought it was a bit barren and unappealing. This time, however, our visit coincided with the full flush of Spring; birds were nesting and calling everywhere,  flowers were in spectacular carpets - and the foxes were very cooperative.
This relatively small, and little-known, National Monument protects a precious remnant of the ecosystem that was once found throughout the entire San Joaquin Valley, and is now mostly lost to agriculture and development. The Carrizo nearly disappeared, too, when, oil was discovered in nearby Taft, California in the early 1900's. That wasteland of wells, pipes and barren ground could all too easily have been the fate of the Carrizo, were it not found that the oil deposits there were buried too deep for economical extraction.  Thank God!
Anyhow, here is a quick shot of a kit fox family: I am still editing, and plan to go back again for more as part of a long-term life history project.

Nikon D300, 200-400mm lens

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spring in the Northwest

Maple and Lake Crescent, Washington
It's almost here. Of all the seasons, spring is the most showy here in the Pacific Northwest, when everything explodes with green. It is the annual reward for suffering through the gloom of winter - and this year has been particularly gloomy!

I always plan at least one or two local trips every year in May and June, returning to some of my favorite haunts: the Olympic coast, the rainforest, and the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains.

In fact, I list my favorite spring destinations in the May issue of OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER magazine.  Have a look here.  

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

Friday, April 1, 2011


Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda 1994
I am often asked one question : what is my favorite place in the world?  The question is understandable, since I travel a lot, but summoning an answer is surprisingly difficult. After all, it would be like picking your favorite child... To be honest, I am fascinated by almost every natural ecosystem on earth. Rainforests, polar icecaps, deserts - all are complex, dynamic, and rich environments. How could I pick one over all the rest?

However, if asked about my favorite wildlife experiences - the answer is easy. I have a top three: swimming with Humpback Whales, following Cassowaries through the Australian forest, and my all-time favorite: sitting with Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda.  Why gorillas?  Because you simply cannot spend any time in their company without changing every notion you might hold about the imagined animal-human divide. These are not mindless automatons - they are gentle, loving, and yes, thoughtful creatures with whom I felt an immediate bond. To watch gorillas at play, or disciplining their young, or simply staring into space, is to feel a kinship unlike anything I have ever felt with a wild creature. Simply said, being with them is a life-changing experience.

Needless to say, therefore, when I was asked to lead a Gorilla photo-safari to Rwanda in 2012, I leapt at the chance.  The trip combines two days of gorillas-trekking with several days in Kenya's extraordinary Masai Mara.

If you would be interested in joining me, let me know and I'll send you more information. Personally, I can't wait.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Under the Sidewalk

Endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox and Pup
I have been in Bakersfield, California this week, looking for endangered
San Joaquin Kit Foxes.  Foxes in the city?  Yes, in one of the most 
unexpected of situations, these rare foxes are holding their own living
 in the middle of the city, in some cases better than they’re faring in
 the surrounding agricultural land. As one biologist told me, kit foxes
 are better off in an empty lot than a farmer’s field. The lot has good
 places to den, and access to the varied diet the city can offer : hot
dogs,candy, and maybe the mice that feed on them.

After searching for an active den for several days, I stumbled onto
this family at dusk last night, emerging from their den – under a
cracked city sidewalk.  The mother appeared, followed – to my delight –
by two small cubs, playful and curious. I went back again this morning
and had a few minutes with them before they went back down into
their den to sleep the day away. (Kit foxes are primarily nocturnal).

But the challenges facing these urban foxes became all too clear
when I returned again tonight. To my horror, the street where I had
photographed the foxes just this morning was now under construction,
with workers jack-hammering the pavement only a few yards from the
den.  I quickly made sure they were aware of the den’s existence and
asked that they try to minimize the disturbance of that part of the
street, but after they all left, and darkness fell, I saw no sign of the
foxes.  I’ll go back tomorrow and check on them.

The urban foxes of Bakersfield make a dangerous bargain : they get
plenty to eat and enjoy the lack of predators. But they also have to
contend with road crews, lawn mowers, cats and dogs,and a city full
of cars. I hope they make it.

Nikon D3, 200-400 f4 lens

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tsunamis and Seabirds : Midway

Laysan Albatross, Midway Atoll
The loss of life in Japan from the Earthquake and Tsunami has been absolutely horrific, and the potential damage from the continuing nuclear disaster is unimaginable. Like many of us, I have been deeply moved by the devastation.

One small story I missed, however, until a friend sent me this link, was the effect of the tsunami on Pacific Islands. The waves, spreading out over the Pacific, easily overran many small islands that may rise only a few feet above the level of the surrounding ocean.  One such place is Midway Atoll, home to one of the most important seabird colonies in the north Pacific. Thousands of albatrosses were killed when the waves swept over these flat, sandy islands, just as chicks were getting ready to fledge.

Albatrosses are long-lived birds, so despite a catastrophic wipe-out of this year's chicks, most of the adults will be back again next year, including "Wisdom," a female Laysan Albatross known to be 60 years old.  But since this is a place I know well, having been there several times in the past decade, I was shocked to hear of the damage. The fact is, there are probably similar stories from many other islands still not heard from across this vast ocean, including many with  human inhabitants.  

Thursday, March 10, 2011

50 "Greatest" Photographs

Amazon Dolphins underwater, Brazil
Got a nice piece of news today. This shot of Amazon River Dolphins (Botos) that I took for National Geographic in 2009 was included in their "50 Greatest Photographs" collection - now available (for sale) on the iPad.  There is always a bit of hype to these sorts of things, but whatever you think of the concept, I'm still honored to be included.  You can see the app HERE.

(Be warned, there are a number of complaints that the $4.99 app includes advertising)

Meanwhile, to read more about this picture, take a look at my Outdoor Photographer blog entry from last year - HERE.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fooling Around

Grasses in Winter
During our recent aurora trip, we typically spent the daytime exploring the winter landscape around where we were staying - a chance to get out and get some exercise, and occasionally find some pictures. The middle of the day was normally not the ideal time for photography, however, and I often didn't even carry a camera.  So when we stumbled onto this cluster of frozen grasses, I wasn't prepared: But I liked it so much that I came back - with camera - a few hours later.

One of my companions dismissed the scene as being too "artsy" - a cliche - but I always enjoy playing with the pure design, composing pictures using only the most basic of visual tools : line and shape.  My friend Steve and I spent half an hour playing here (there's no other word for it) until the setting sun sent deep tree shadows across the area, and the cold drove us back toward the lodge.

Is it Art?  Who knows?  But it was a half hour spent quite happily in Nature, and for that I'm always grateful. If it hadn't been 35 below zero, I could easily have spent all day here.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

Friday, March 4, 2011

Nights on the Job

Kevin at work, Photo (c) Steve Shuey
My good friend Steve, who has been with me here in Canada all this week, took this shot of me photographing the aurora Thursday night. One thing I learned from this : you get COLD holding still for 45 seconds at 40 below...  But it's a picture I'm happy to have - thanks, Steve.

Heading Home

Celestial Dance, Blachford Lake

Last night was our final one at Blachford Lake, and it didn’t disappoint. 
After a slow beginning at 7:30 pm, the lights really got going 3 hours 
later with a dramatic burst of activity that had everyone outside and 
gaping skyward.  It has been a spectacular week, full of splendid
weather, great company, and a nightly aurora show that qualifies
as one of the best and most consistent I've ever seen.

Nikon D3, 28mm f1.4 lens, ISO 1000

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Green Tsunami

The sky was quiet tonight. Although the first aurora appeared just after dark, it was largely immobile - or in the words of one of our Aussie mates here, "Nothing but smudgy smudges."  Then, at about 1 am, after most of us had given up and gone to bed, the sky exploded. For half an hour or so, the lights danced across the sky in a brilliant, shimmering display. The lights moved so quickly, in fact, that they were hard to capture. Then, abruptly, it ended, and the rest of the night held nothing but "smudgy smudges."

Who knows why the lights can burst into action so suddenly, and just as suddenly melt away. But it makes predictions, and photography, a challenge.

Tonight is our last night here after a stunning week of nightly aurora. It has been the best, most consistent, viewing (and weather) I've ever had in all my years of aurora-chasing. No, we have not had any of the rare, and sought-after, red auroras or even much besides green - but I'm not complaining.  We'll save that for next time.

Nikon D3, 28mm f1.4 lens, 1000 ISO

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Avoiding The Cold

Window Ice Crystals, Blachford Lake Lodge
Sometimes you just don't feel like getting all dressed up and going outside in the -20 C. cold. As a productive alternative, it's fun to try and find pictures inside where it is snug and warm. An obvious place to start is on the frost-covered windows around the lodge.  We woke this morning to a wonderful pattern of ice crystals on the window of our room, and I spent a happy hour before breakfast making pictures while still in my pajamas.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm lens


Midnight Swirl
The evening began with very high expectations : the forecast was for clear skies, and the aurora predictions were for another busy night. And when the first lights appeared early - about 8 pm - we settled in for what we thought would be a long, busy night.  

Then began what can only be called the "dressing ritual", the donning of multiple layers of clothing: hats, scarves boots, gloves, over-gloves and over-mittens. (At -35 C., you need to be pretty well-padded to spend the evening standing around outside.) 

For an hour or so, there was a lot of activity, with waving bands of green filling the sky. Loops formed and then untied themselves, and fleeting curtains of dancing light appeared and then, just as abruptly, vanished. 

Green is the most common color in the aurora, the result of the excitation of oxygen molecules high in the atmosphere caused by incoming charged solar particles. Other colors - red, purple, violet - are possible, but are more commonly associated with stronger solar events. Some of these are not visible to the human eye, but are recorded by film and sensors. So it was not until I had a chance to open images on the laptop that it became clear that tonight's lights did not have some of the red tinges of previous nights.

Whether or not that itself was a kind of indicator of diminishing activity, the lights faded quickly before midnight, and never really re-formed for the rest of the night. What was supposed to be a Big Night, became a quiet evening, and a chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Today, meanwhile, the skies are clear again, and expectations are as high as ever for tonight.  In about 12 hours, we'll see what happens.

Rotating Curtains
Nikon D3 with 28 f1.4 lens ISO 1000, 1/15 second

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Midnight Magic

Looping Aurora

The aurora forecasts for Monday night were for "Moderate" activity. 
In aurora lingo that's code for a sleepless night that began just after 
9 pm and went on more or less continuously until after 2 am. For hour 
after hour, the entire sky was filled with swirling bands of light, 
sometimes bright enough to throw a shadow on the ground, at other 
times more muted.

As always, the challenge was to find a composition that worked. 
Aurora pictures generally need an "anchor" to be effective, something 
earthbound to give a sense of scale and place. Shots that include just 
the aurora may be colorful, but don't tell much of a story.  However, the 
area around Great Slave Lake is not wildly dramatic: there is no Denali 
here, no ragged peaks to showcase the lights. There are, instead, 
thousands of square miles of trees, and trees are invariably an essential 
part of the composition.

Nikon D3, 28mm f1.4 lens  ISO 1000

Monday, February 28, 2011

Green Waves

Green Waves and Spruce Trees, Northwest Territories

Auroras are unpredictable creatures.  They can be brash and lively,
shimmering and ethereal, or they be gentle and graceful. The latter
is what we had last night. We had clear skies, happily, and despite
the -25 C. temps. there was little wind, so it was vastly more
comfortable being outside than the night before.
The lights began about 9 pm, and seemed to come in waves –
half an hour of activity and then fading away, repeating all night
long. It was not a dazzling display, but a lovely green wave that
morphed in unpredictable ways.  The hint of red was not visible to
 the eye, but camera found it just on the fringes of the wave.
I was shooting 30 second exposures, which is longer than I
like since this allows even crisp shapes to blur into a smear. But
these lights were pale : brighter aurora allow much shorter
exposures and sharper detail. That’s still what we’re hoping for!
Sunny again today, so we’re hopeful for tonight. The aurora
forecast is for quiet activity again tonight, but suggesting more
action on Tuesday night.  We just have to hope this glorious
weather holds – I can’t tell you how many times great 
aurora happens above a solid deck of clouds, maddeningly
invisible to those of us trapped on the ground.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens  ISO 1000 at 2.8