Photo Journal, Issue 16, June 2014

The End of an Era

I have to admit carrying my first film SLR camera into the field back in 1970 and then my first digital SLR into the field in 2002. At first, I was a generalist, and I would shoot wildflowers, scenery, or whatever popped up into my vision. As time passed by, I found myself attracted to many of the challenges of wildlife photography. However, as any wildlife shooter will tell you, you can almost never have a long enough lens. Upon returning from an Alaskan brown bear trip one time, I commented, “You know when you have a long enough lens when you look through it and all you see is fur.”

So, over the last ten years or so, I have lusted after longer and longer lenses, and it gave me pause when I discovered how heavy these lenses were becoming. Therefore, the weight was going to limit my walking range considerably. Couple that with the fact that most of us are not getting any younger, so our walking range is getting limited day by day.

After the recent acquisition of another long lens, I stopped to reflect on this. Although the “big rigs” had great optics and image quality, maybe it was time to consider a small solution for the next long-distance backpacking trip. You see, my backpacker friends consider me to be a photographer, and my photographer friends consider me to be a backpacker. As a result, I purchased a new lightweight superzoom camera with a small sensor. It would beat the camera gear weight problem that I had been struggling with, and maybe it would be adequate for wildlife. Unlike previous lightweight point&shoot cameras that I had dealt with, I selected one with a RAW file capability. The super zoom range was astonishing, since it goes out to an equivalent of 1200mm. Actually, the reported focal length is about one fifth of that, but that is due to the sensor dimensions.

In my first week with the new superzoom, I wasn’t sure if I liked all of the fancy new “intelligent” features and automation. Now, having used the Canon SX50HS for a couple of months, it is growing on me. The user must learn a little in advance, just to know when and how to activate these fancy features. Maybe it will become more instinctive to me, but I am just too used to a standard DSLR and its buttons and dials.

As with most new cameras, there is good and bad. Good is the lower weight. I have the new camera in a small bump-proof case with a tripod, extra batteries, and similar accessories, and still the total weight stops short of three pounds. With my DSLR rig and similar add-ons, I would have been hovering around ten pounds, or twenty-five pounds if I grab the monster lens. If you are standing around in a studio, it doesn’t matter, but if you are out in the high peaks, it surely does matter. With such a small sensor, I can’t control my depth of field so accurately, but for wildlife shooting, I can deal with that. I’m used to a DSLR rig that uses phase detection autofocus, and this new camera does contrast detection autofocus. That is not as fast or as accurate, but it seems OK within the bounds of normal lighting.

Just ten days ago, I was traveling up a well-known mountain trail and breathing pretty heavily in the thin air. I heard a loud squeak in front of me. As my hearing started to lock in on the sound location, my hands were rapidly removing the camera from its case. My vision searched the general area and then the second squeak allowed me to spot the animal. It was a tiny tan and gray American Pika, squeaking its little lungs out, probably calling for a mate. It was facing ninety degrees to my left, but still I did not want to approach very closely for fear of chasing it off. My hands had hit the right camera controls to prepare for shooting, and a three-shot burst got it perfectly. The focus was good, the exposure was good, the color was good, and there was no motion blur. Excellent.

All of a sudden, I am thinking more of these small cameras.

Maybe I should first go publish the American Pika photo to my online gallery.

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Photo Journal, Issue 15, March 2014

Bighorn Sheep
Basically, there are many herds of bighorn sheep in California mountains and deserts. The Desert Bighorn lives mostly south of the Sierra Nevada Range, and it has a thinner wool coat and is a smaller animal. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn tends to be found higher up in the mountains, so it has a thicker wool coat. Some of the big rams can weigh 200 pounds, but an adult female is more like 110-120 pounds. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn has been an endangered species (Ovis canadensis) for a while, but careful protection and management has brought them back from the brink of near-extinction.

The San Gabriel Mountains is one range just north of the Los Angeles Basin, and about 400 sheep live there. Since so many tax dollars have gone into protecting and managing sheep in the mountains, there are several agencies that manage the bighorn sheep survey each year. California Fish and Wildlife takes an interest in this, because if too many sheep are present, it will have to issue more hunting permits. The various National Forest people take interest, because sheep live in the national forests. The Bureau of Land Management gets involved a little out in the desert, because it sets up some water sources for the animals.

Each year around March, they have a bighorn sheep survey in the San Gabriels. This is since April is the right season for baby lambs to be born, so they want to survey adults in March. When the lambs are tiny, the ewes tend to keep them up very high and out of sight of predators and away from domestic sheep disease. Not too much different from humans, I suppose. Volunteers make up the survey teams, and the teams are led by representatives of the various agencies plus various bighorn sheep foundations and clubs. So, that’s why I was in the San Gabriel Mountains running around in bad weather and over slippery terrain, carrying heavy telescopes and lenses. Our team counted and identified about 13 animals, and the statistics were turned in. One ram was identified by our team, but I think the ram was surveying the humans. Photo in the online photo gallery, shot with a 150-600mm lens on a Canon 7D body.

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Photo Journal, Issue 14, July 2013

I had been doing some photography in Yellowstone National Park, and there always seemed to be a cluster of tourists and photographers trying to watch the black bears near the Petrified Tree parking lot. It fact, it got very congested during some hours of the day, so I was determined to circumvent that. So, I parked over at Roosevelt Lodge, hiked up over the hill past Lost Lake, and down the trail toward Petrified Tree. As I approached from two or three hundred yards away, I saw lots of big super telephoto lenses pointed right at me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I looked around the trail where I was, and I didn’t see anything remarkable. I continued up to the parking lot with the photographers, and then I stepped behind one big lens to look toward its target. Apparently I had walked right past a bear family feeding just off the trail. There had to be a reason.

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Photo Journal, Issue 13, June 2013

I was in Grand Teton National Park hiking the Hermitage Trail, and I saw a trail sign that warned of an aggressive elk cow who was defending her little spotted calf. I had bear spray for grizzlies, so I wasn’t too worried about an elk. I met some hikers going the other way, and they had just encountered the elk. They were so worried that they used bear spray on it. I had a quick chat with those other hikers, and then I entered the same trail section. I saw the elk and calf, and then they saw me as I was photographing them from a distance using a 400mm lens. The elk took exception, so she started walking slowly uphill in my direction. Then she was heading for me, so I dodged in and out behind some trees. Elk aren’t so good at dodging, so she quickly gave up and went back to her little spotted calf. I had the photos that I needed, so I left while my bear spray was still intact and I had no elk hoof marks on my backside.

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Photo Journal, Issue 12, July 2012

The Critter
A bunch of us were walking on a levee trail along San Francisco Bay, and I spotted something swimming against the tide. I moved in closer to the shore, and I could tell that it was some furry animal, but I was not used to seeing any furry animals swimming in the bay. Sea otters don’t seem to get this far into the south end of the bay. River otters don’t seem to be found around this area at all. Muskrats were too small compared to what we saw. I sent a photo and posed an inquiry to the experts at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, since it was almost in their back yard. The answer came back: beaver. Apparently one had been spotted recently a few miles south of our trail. Amazing. Some photos are at the online photo gallery.

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Photo Journal, Issue 11, June 2012

I did a short backpacking trip into Sequoia National Park, hauling about nine pounds of camera gear. On the second day, I was passing through some old-growth forest when I spooked an owl. Once I photographed it, I managed to identify it as a Spotted Owl, Strix occidentalis. By the fourth day, I photographed a nice male Blue Grouse, Dendragpus obscurus. I’ll put those shots in the online photo gallery.

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Use of this web site

A user contacted me to ask why I couldn’t show more than five animal photos on my web site. If you check it, the online photo gallery is at a different address, and it can be found by following the link found near the banner of this page. Some people just cannot be bothered to read the fine print!

Another user contacted me to identify the animals that appear in the banner of this page. I had falsely assumed that they were obvious. From left to right: (1) African spotted leopard, (2) Alaskan coastal brown bear, (3) Dall sheep ram, (4) Canadian lynx, (5) Mountain lion.

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Photo Journal, Issue 10, July-August 2011

Another Visit to the Mountains

This trip had several missions. I would be hiking up Mount Whitney, so I needed to acclimatize for a few days at a moderate elevation. I headed to the White Mountains, camped overnight, and then headed up on foot to White Mountain Peak. On the hike up, I saw the cutest families of yellow-bellied marmots, and on the way down I saw a herd of 24 bighorn sheep. This was a so-called ewe herd of adult females with their lambs of the year. Two adults even had a GPS/radio collar with red and blue ear identification tags. That’s pretty snazzy for a sheep. It was great fun to watch some of the lambs practicing on head-butting. The ram herd was elsewhere in the region. The rams and ewes only come together during the autumn breeding season and the lambs are born in the spring, so the lambs probably never recognize their fathers.

After those days, I continued to the start of the Mount Whitney Trail to prepare for that annual jaunt. The mountain had been hit by severe rains, floods, with rock and sand slides, so the trail had been torn up a bit. Some deep stream crossing aids were disrupted, and that meant wading cold streams this year. That slowed me down, but it didn’t stop me. Then on the next day I got a wilderness permit in Bishop and headed out on a 55-mile loop backpack trip through the Evolution Basin of northern Kings Canyon National Park, partly southbound on the John Muir Trail. That was a great four day period, especially for photographing an American pika near Muir Pass.

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Photo Journal, Issue 9, June 2011

Another Visit to Yellowstone

I started out the long drive to Yellowstone National Park, and since I had the extra time available, I decided to take the long route through Central Idaho. Why there? I had been reading about the wolverine (Gulo gulo), the largest member of the weasel family. I knew how elusive those animals were, but at least I wanted to see their habitat, and that pointed to Central Idaho. After stopping at a car campground, I was asleep in my tent when my intruder alert bells sounded. I jumped outside with my camera in my hands and a headlamp on my head. There was some furry thing rustling around, so I snapped a photo. At that moment, I couldn’t tell if it was a raccoon or something similar. Then I looked at the camera’s rear display. To my amazement, I had a nighttime photo of a wolverine. See the photo gallery. My entire trip to Yellowstone had been instantly validated, and I hadn’t even made it all the way to Yellowstone yet.

While spending a week in Yellowstone, I had set aside one day to hike up Mount Washburn, which is in the center of the park. I parked my car at the bottom of the Chittenden Trail, laced up my boots for snow, and armed myself with a few key pieces of photo equipment. The trail got snowy and windy toward the top, but I cut a path to
the summit observation room and then discovered it to be locked. Fresh coyote tracks were there in the snow, but it was difficult to imagine a coyote that deep into snow country on a mountaintop unless there had been some human feeding it.

After wading back down through snow and mud, I arrived at my car just as a guided group of young people was preparing to start walking. Since my appearance made it obvious that I had been hiking to the summit, the guide came over to speak to me. He inquired about the trail conditions, and I reported about the mud and snow (knee-deep) in a spot or two. Then I saw the reason for his concern. In his group, there were hikers
shod in ordinary sneakers. For snow, that could get ugly. Oh, well. Not my problem.

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Photo Journal, Issue 8, November 08, 2009

A Chuckle From the Summer Season

In the summer of 2009, I was headed to the Sierra Nevada East Side to do some hiking and photography. Before I hiked much above 14,000 feet elevation, I knew that it was prudent to do some altitude adjustment, so I camped in the White Mountains, just west of Nevada, for several days to accomplish this. Altitude adjustment is best done by
sleeping at moderately high elevation and getting some moderate exercise there or above. The big peak there is White Mountain Peak at about 14,250 feet high, and I had hiked up it before, so I figured that it was time to tackle it again. This peak does not require any climbing skills, only maybe tough feet and healthy lungs, since it had a rocky jeep road to the top. I presented myself at the locked starting gate early one morning armed with my camera with one 18-200mm lens. I would be hiking all day long at high elevation over a distance of more than 16 miles, so it was not prudent to carry along lots of glass.

Within a few miles, I was picking out the wildlife. Yellow-bellied marmots were all over the place. Baby marmots were particularly cute as they poked their furry noses from the rocky burrow, and Mom wasn’t far away. After a few more hours, I was hiking up the steeper section toward the summit, and I spotted animals on the east side of the peak.
Initially, I thought that they were moving rocks, but after a moment staring and perfecting the focus, I could see hooves and horns. These appeared to be sheep, but they were not domestic sheep. I was almost certain that they were female bighorn sheep. One animal appeared to have a red collar, and I suspected that it was a radio-tracking collar. That would make it a bighorn sheep, not a domestic sheep. I really needed 500mm or 600mm in the lens to get it, but 200mm was all that I had with me. However, I was still on my way to the summit, and there would be plenty of camera time later on the way back down.

I reached the summit, shot a few scenery panoramics, enjoyed the view, and then started back down. Other hikers that I met on the summit started down as well. When we got down to the bighorn overlook point, I snapped a few shots of the animals, and then asked another hiker if they had an appreciation for wildlife. The response was, “Yes, I used
to be a wildlife biologist.”

So, I pointed out the wooly animals in the distance and asked if they looked like domestic sheep or bighorn sheep. The response was, “They look like elk to me.” ( ! )

Geez, I couldn’t believe that. Elk are several times larger than any form of sheep, and they are shaped differently. Elk are dark brown, and bighorn sheep are off-white/gray/tan. Elk
would not be found above 13,000 feet on a bare and rocky mountain side.

At that point, my pace picked up. I may not be a wildlife biologist, but at least I know the difference between an elk and a sheep.

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