Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thinking out of season

It can be downright humorous sometimes as a photographer to have to think so far out of season in efforts to photograph subjects that won't be possible to use for stock sale until the next year. Enjoying photos of spring things? Don't think about using them for photo sales until next fall/winter for spring 2010! This came to light recently as I realized it was time to do my annual presentation of Christmas in Seattle theme images for an annual photo client, University Volkswagen and Audi, and their holiday desktop calendar they make for staff and clients each year using my art as the cover photo. Huh? It's spring for crying out loud and I"m thinking about Christmas!!!??? But that is the fun of things too - it allows me to enjoy thoughts of ALL holiday times of the year, all year long to some degree. So while I'm busy researching Christmas photography for a client...on the first days of April, I hope everyone has a nice April coming up soon!

(photo: 2009 desktop calendar for University Volkswagen & Audi with huge 16x24" photo of mine from the Seattle Center on the cover)

Monday, March 30, 2009

A day on the beach

The quiet of being away for a few days at the beach, a beach on Puget Sound in this case and not "the ocean". But it brings all the joys of a restful break from the schedule of feeling like too many things need to be attended to. What better way to show the pace of how our days went than with an image showing the frantic pace of....agate hunting. Slow, slow wandering during low tides on the rocky beach, for hours. That is a pace we all need to appreciate life sometimes! And, when you get the sun to come out just after the rocks were wet? Agates can be spotted 30' away - just ask my son, the family professional agate finder.

Oh, and there were plenty of frantic moments to photograph birds as usual also :)

Back to normal schedule for the week hoping spring might actually bring blooming cherry trees and blooming bulbs FINALLY soon!
(photos top-to-bottom: agate in hand of a child; agate popping out of the scene of rocks on beach; Barrow's Goldeneye couple swimming by; Bald Eagle fly-overs captured by pure luck...and paying attention to what was passing by me!)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Skunks in the forest!

I get extra excited and antsy this time of the year. My nature wanderings take me to explore where the wildflowers can be viewed and photographed from April until at least July. While there are many spectacular native flowers that are still waiting “just around the corner” to put on their annual show, one beast of a native flower already has been showing off in areas around us and I just saw my first group of them for 2009. Skunk Cabbage (Lysichitum americanum) has long been one of the most amazing head-turning plants that I’ve ever seen!

I recall back as a child on a large farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley when, in mid-March, these fascinating yellow “blobs” would begin to emerge from the swampy forest grounds lining our fields. I always was afraid to get near them! In early spring the skunk cabbage pokes its yellow (up to eight inches) flower and spike out of the wet area where it thrives. Sometimes, the green leaves will appear at the same time as the flowers, but most often, the bright yellow flowers are all that is seen for a week or so. The leaves are said to be the largest deciduous leaves in North America, growing to five feet in length! These large leaves were employed by virtually all western Washington tribes like waxed paper, for wrapping food, lining cooking pits, separating foods being cooked together, and drying berries on. The stinky, skunk-like smell they carry proves critical to this early blooming flower to attract small flies and gnats for pollination. Bees will pollinate the flower as well later in the spring once they become active. Native animals also rely on them as a food source as bears regularly dig up the underground rhizomes to eat, as they are packed with starch. As impressive as skunk cabbage may look, they also perform a miraculous feat each spring by generating their own heat to melt the snow away from them! If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe (the bright yellow shield) and when you touch the flower head, your fingertip warms up noticeably. Biologists have found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 68 degrees above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night! This explains the remarkable sight of seeing a skunk cabbage flower emerged from the ground with snow still surrounding it, but a circular ring of snow melted away from the plant.
So put on your muddy boots or go for a drive past regional muddy wetlands and get out to enjoy the show of this "Skunk in the forest"!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Shooting into the sun

I've always really enjoyed photography with the results I get by shooting into the sun. Sure, it can be distracting with a lot of flare in the image - but I'm not talking about direct sunlight here. You need to be really careful about when and how you decide to do it! Having part of the sun mostly hidden behind an object (ie. tree, mountain, etc...) and shooting with a closed aperture like f/22 and you get the nice star-burst effect. Yesterday showed another reason I enjoy challenging myself shooting into the sun - "crummy foggy days" are great opportunities! The valley gets this a lot of course near the Snoqualmie River and yesterday morning was a nice drive to check out a few local areas while having to go get eggs at the market. I love a good excuse to take an extra 20 minutes to buy eggs or milk! The sun can appear like the moon almost in the foggy morning sunrise....I love it. Give it a try!

(photos top-to-bottom: foggy 'moon-like' look of the sun at sunrise; previous sunrise "into-the-sun" shots from last winter's deep snow and cold)

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Chorus of Nature

March is a magical month of life in nature. Plants begin to grow and our daylight hours are filled with the songs of birds. Another choir of spring also starts to warm up, but this one is at night! Ah, one of my favorite parts of spring. The longer evening hours of warmth lead to that first night where darkness brings on a riot of singing from our hidden but noisy neighbors: the Pacific Tree Frogs! Just last night with it being a tad bit warmer outside, I heard my first chorus of them in the wetlands and valley around my property - and this mornning a small single visitor to the old fall leaves still laying at the edge of our yard was located by my border collie. Good dog!

The Pacific Tree Frog (Hyla regilla) can be found almost anywhere in our region. Woodlands, meadows, pastures, shrubs, small trees, flower gardens, and smack in the middle of your lawn! They often are found even in urban areas quite far from the nearest body of water! Their toes have sticky pads which allow them to climb about on plants with great agility. However they do tend to stay much closer to ground level than most tree frog species, preferring to remain within two feet of the ground most of the time. I have always been fascinated with the care these little creatures use in selecting areas to lay their eggs. The eggs are laid in early March to May in temporary ponds. Why? These temporary ponds are key because their predators such as brown salamanders and bullfrogs do not live or lay their eggs here! These other species require permanent water for their livelihood! By choosing temporary ponds (which will dry up by summer) instead of deep permanent ponds, Pacific Tree Frogs reduce the number of predators that may eat the tadpoles!

So just why do frogs sing? There are actually a wide variety of reasons! Sometimes, frogs sing when they are trying to attract a mate ("Hey there! Come and find ME!"). Sometimes, they sing to mark their territory ("Excuse me, this is MY lily pad!"). Other times, frogs sing because they know the weather is going to change or they even squeak when they are frightened or hurt! But at this time of year what stands out the most is the males call for attracting females. The male frogs are territorial and protect their part of the pond from other males by repeating their two-toned call at night. This call can be heard from as far as a mile or more away and attracts females who hop along to find where the males are hanging out. This loud call is so famous and "perfect" in a sense that even Hollywood has taken notice. The distinctive call of the Pacific Tree Frog is widely used in films for a "tropical" background! Once the eggs have been laid in the temporary pond (attached to a branch or clump of grass) the parents hop back to open forests and other places, leaving the young to fend for themselves. Thus begins the remarkable transformation of an egg to a tadpole and eventually to the young froglet which first grows back legs, then front legs, and then loses the trail to become a froglet. This happens by autumn and young frogs are mature at about one year of age. At that point their main predators are raccoons, herons, mink, bullfrogs, snakes, and other animals.

As March passes along and we get our first warm evenings that last well past dinnertime start keeping an ear open for this spring choir to kick into full swing! While it can be very difficult to spot these little fellows (they cease calling if they feel threatened) you can always sit back and enjoy knowing they are present nearby. Having Pacific Tree Frogs (or any species of frog for that matter) nearby is one of the strongest indications that we have a healthy ecosystem! These little amphibians are one of the first indicators of when an ecosystem is starting to struggle under pressure and we need to keep them happy if the rest of the natural cycle around us is to remain healthy and happy too!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Green Day!

In an attempt to not even try to act like I'm Irish, the German farmer in me is just as happy to extend a Happy Green Day to everyone on this fine "It is St. Patrick's Day, and that means it is almost SPRING!" day worthy of mention! And to not try to turn this into a German vs. Irish battle, I'll leave you with a celebration of "GREEN-THINGS" to honor the day. I guess I should go and see what "pastel-colored" things I have in my photogrpahy image files so I'm plenty ready for Easter in a few weeks, eh!?!?

Green spider? Greens of a carpet of Oxidalis?

Green look of Palouse River Canyon below Palouse Falls in spring:

Sword fern:

Green of the lovely Pacific Tree Frog:

False Hellebore on the forest floor:

Friday, March 13, 2009

When winter fades toward spring, there is hope and life

It is hard to not have a sense of great hope and new life every year that winter shows signs of easing and allowing spring to take control. It is such an uplifting experience and a feeling that you can't ignore when seeing how nature is screaming it in your face. With the concerns of virtually a million things on the minds of many of us, nature and the wheel of life around us continues to tell us a story, every day. Even if it means you get attracted to photograph old outhouses sometimes like the abandoned beauty in a farmyard I spotted this week, fully decorated as a focal point to the yard! This week while roaming about the back-roads of one of my favorite counties in Washington, Kittitas County, the day began somewhat a downer. My overly detailed plans for the day were blown to pieces immediately as the sun climbed above the eastern horizon of Whiskey Dick Mountain from the Kittitas Valley. My planned locations to be photographing the rising sunrise light on a pair of my favorite barns, and one old thrashing machine location, all while having a freshly snow-plastered Mount Stuart Range of mountains as the backdrop? Those plans were smashed to pieces in an instant! A freak band of low clouds crawled up and over from the south, hiding the sun just as it was about to crest the eastern horizon. By the time they would have move off to the north and allowed morning sunlight to fill the valley, Mount Stuart would have been long hidden behind those clouds north of my location. Nature can sure play cruel some days! I honestly admit it, I nearly just went on back home at that moment – I mean, how could I “waste” a day under these clouds in crummy light when it would be gorgeous at the home base getting a lot of work done there? Then, after allowing myself to calm down over matters, I decided I should at least go spend a hour driving around back roads in the region to check on trailhead access locations from my book Best Desert Hikes-Washington, which I had not been to a few since the original research was done six years ago already. While the renewed research was extremely valuable (one location near the Yakima Training Center has been altered some in access it appears – more on that later!) what happened afterwards brought out yet again why no day out is a waste of time.

Departing westward again but using back roads in the Kittitas Valley to do so, the sun came out warmly (well, 28* at 11:00am was more warm than the 16* I had that morning!) on my back. I revisited barns and farms I’ve passed many times and suddenly my creativity juices began to flow. I pulled out only my big lens and chose to only shoot rural scenes using 200-400mm for a focal length (that’s 300-600mm on the DSLR). This created an entire new dimension to what I’ve always shot there in the past – having to drive uphill out of the valley a bit above my target to be able to get the barn/house/fence/ etc… in view and also get a snowy Manastash Ridge behind it, for example. What fun I had!

Then the great sense of hope and new life hit…passing one farm after another, every herd of cows was dotted with newborns, some fields I counted upwards of 40+ baby calves that couldn’t have been more than a week old! I parked, stopped the motor, and just watched and listened. Oh sure, I took some photos as well. But this is where the utmost joy comes from my pursuit of sharing what excites me about what I see out there. Sometimes you just need to stop everything and see the small special things in life.
(photos top-to-bottom: farmyard abandoned outhouse decorated as nice interest point to the yard; pair of 'red barn' shots and snowy Manastash Ridge in the background-shot with 200-400mm lens, not up close; cute baby calf looking ready to take on the world!!)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Told you so

Didn't I say "bring back the snow, I'm going to talk about spring feelings anyhow?" just a couple of days ago? Well, I knew it was going to snow so that was easy on my part, but here you go...more snow! Snow Sunday morning around 1.5", that after Saturday baseball practice cancelled due to...snow. Monday? Make it three days in a row after yesterday afternoon and intense snow for 1.5 hours to get almost 3" on the ground where it had not melted yet.

At least the dog has loved it --- she wonders why her human pets seem so worked up over it all!
(photos: "no gardening today"; Mittens pausing while waiting for me to catch up to her on our morning property hike around)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The duck went "quack!" and the owl said "Whooo!"

Snow one day, sunshine the next. Yesterday I took advantage of the bright day to pay a visit between Tacoma and Olympia to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The bright low late spring light left me with wonderful opportunities to both hone my birdwatching skills just as much as my photography skills on these very same creatures of our natural world! I was hanging out low photographing Hooded Mergansers, Green-winged Teals, Pied-billed Grebes, Common Mergansers, Horned Grebes, Mallards, Northern Pintails, Northern Shoveler, and the list goes on. Of course the refuge was scattered with literally dozens of Great Blue Herons including one who was the standing guards-bird of the path that led to the photo blind area.

What a rascal! Bald Eagles were in the high cottonwood trees along the Nisqually River, and I was lucky to find a small group who had found the resting Great Horned Owl in the large trees near the barns.

All this while thousands of Canada Geese circled in and out of the refuge. Winter is still here but the birds were looking cozy paired up in many cases with mates and life was wonderful for them all. It should be fun to pay a re-visit to see some babies from our avian friends within the coming month or so!

(photos top-to-bottom: Male Hooded Merganser; Heron standing guard on trail; Great Horned Owl sleeping in tree; Male/Female pair of Hooded Mergansers; Male/Female pair of Northern Pintails swimming; Male Green-winged Teal)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Snow...just as expected, and on queue!

Aha, so I spout off about feeling all "springy" and things that were bright yesterday. The emerging Indian Plum, the frolicking Bald Eagles. Today? Snow! First light a snapshot out the window....later in the morning, more. Ah well, we'll have more this weekend so enjoy springs upcoming arrival. Maybe before July!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Spring really is getting near...even if it might snow!

OK, so a couple weeks ago I got all eager that it felt like spring. Within 36 hours, we had 2" of snow on the ground! Bah, I'm not afraid of snow -- I'll say it again: spring feels close! There, now the forecast for potential snow Saturday night and Sunday may proceed! I notice today Indian Plum was budding out everywhere. A lovely native shrub of our open mix forests, it is one of the first awakening native plants to let us know winter won't last forever. These lovely leaves will soon share the sunlight with a lovely chain of small white flowers that emerge from them. One of the first things bees can find to visit every spring! Shrubs of Indian Plum can reach the size of almost 10-12' and really are stunning to enjoy. Once the flowers are over and the rest of the forest wakes up, these lovely plants seem to be forgotten and go into a blend-in stage with the rest of their surroundings. But for now, they really stand out as "hey, we're ALIVE!" and I always pay my due respect to them in my forest on our property.

On a side note, a drive not far from the Snoqualmie River this afternoon yielded seeing two mature Bald Eagles together doing pass-by flights of each other in huge trees overhanging an oxbow lake/slough area. I'm going to be watching this area closely as they sure don't seem to be in a hurry to leave to nest elsewhere so they likely might be nesting nearby this year. There is a nest site within 1/2 mile of where I saw them so that might be home headquarters yet again for these two this year. Stay tuned!
(photos, top-to-bottom: Indian Plum budding out; Bald Eagle pair flying by each other in the trees)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Avian fly-bys

Yesterday morning got us out of the month of February and suddenly March was upon me. That always feels like a big step toward spring arriving! However of course this year February was a month of mostly dry and lovely weather so who knows what spring will be like - I hope it can't get any worse than last year! To kick off day one of the month, we were eating breakfast and a lovely Bald Eagle soars around in the easterly breeze, enjoying the relatively warm 50* morning winds and sun. While this isn't a first time to see this at our house it sure is always exciting to remember I have "Bald Eagle" on my birding yard-list! There have been 2-3 eagles regularly seen since Christmas around this part of the valley and it seems maybe due time to start checking my known past nesting sites along the Snoqualmie River between Snoqualmie and Duvall for activity. I'll let you know what I start noticing!