Archive for the ‘science’ category

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

June 18, 2013

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of HaA Green Sea Turtle swims over a shallow coral reef using its powerful front legs for propulsion

Karen and I were snorkling in a coral reef area south of Kona, working hard to stay together despite all the distractions of colorful fish everywhere among coral canyons. When I looked toward her, I was astonished to see a Green Sea Turtle swimming right between Karen and me, about five feet away from each of us. I couldn’t shout with glee without drowning, so instead I took pictures as we swam parallel to the turtle through the tropical aqua sea. It was enchanting.

 The music for this video is from the song Silver Creek, by the German duo DOKAPI. More information and a link to their website is at the end of this article.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

This was the third sea turtle I had seen on this trip. The day before, both of us had observed one basking on a narrow strip of sand beach, where it shared the space with scores of humans. It seemed content to be there, and even used its flippers to toss sand onto its back.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

The endearing thing about sea turtles is their grace. Most of us humans are water nerds, graceless and gangly and splashing. In contrast, the sea turtle moves with the cadence of time itself. The swimming is slow and graceful, as if it got extra points for style and poetry of motion.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

This swimming sea turtle was covered with green algae. It looked like it needed to go to one of the natural cleaning stations that certain fish have set up in the sea. These sea salons are known to turtles and fish as places where they can go for a good grooming to have parasites and algae removed and gobbled down by specialized species of fish.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

In contrast, the Green Sea Turtle I had photographed several days before looked like it had just come out of the turtle wash and had been waxed afterward. There was not a speck of visible algae on it; in fact, each plate on its back sported lines of subtle color that looked for all the world like soft brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Against the aqua color of the sea, it was stunning.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

The Green Sea Turtle lives around the world in the tropics, and is endangered. It gets caught accidentally in nets and is killed for its meat and shell. Fortunately, in Hawai‘i the sea turtles are revered, and everyone is ecstatic to see them. They have special beaches where they go to lay eggs, and it would be wonderful to see the hatchlings emerging and heading for the sea, but that will have to wait for another trip.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Music for the video in this article was created by the German duo DOKAPI. It was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.5; go to opsound.org/info/license/ for more information. DOKAPI has a website at dokapi.de where you can find out more about their excellent music. Our video, Dream of the Sea Turtles, is available for use under the same terms of the ShareAlike 2.5 license. Contact us at lee@leerentz.com for information.

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

May 30, 2013

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

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Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-113

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

HAWAII VOLCANIC ADVENTURE: When Lava Explosively Collides with the Sea

May 26, 2013

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiLava flowed into the sea at two points when we visited Hawaii in May 2013: steam pours up when searing 2,000°F lava meets 75°F saltwater; the steam cloud is illuminated by the incandescence of the glowing lava.

The captain of the small vessel very nearly sneered at his 15 or so prospective passengers as he listed all the hardships of our ocean trip to view lava. He pointedly disparaged the idea of taking a big camera (like the one I was holding) out on the tumultuous seas, because, well, stuff happens. He emphasized that just last week, a young woman lost her iPhone to the sea and cried that “my whole life was on that phone!” He commented that perhaps she needed more of a life.

I wasn’t about to be deterred by his comments, so I wrapped my camera in a plastic bag and secured it under a cheap yellow poncho, then climbed the tall step ladder to board the small vessel. Karen and I found a seat toward the rear, where the pounding journey was said to be a tad less rough. Then the captain hauled his boat by pickup truck to the ocean, and backed us all into the rough surf.

The captain gunned the twin engines, and we roared out of the harbor and into the open ocean at high speed. The surf was high–so high that the day’s early morning journey had been cancelled. We were on a late trip, so that I could photograph the flowing lava at twilight rather than during daylight. I had tried to exchange this scheduled trip for one in the pre-dawn light, but the captain never called me back, despite my repeated calls. In the end, it worked out better this way, because the early trip didn’t go.

It was 18 miles along the coast to reach the two places where lava was flowing into the Pacific Ocean. This was a pounding ride through the waves, and we were splashed repeatedly with warm saltwater. Both of us are prone to seasickness, so Karen wore a Scopolamine patch and I took two tablets of Bonine, which was not supposed to make me sleepy. We both also used wrist bands with a little plastic ball that stimulates an acupressure point in the wrist–said to relieve nausea–and we both ate ginger candy that is also used to combat seasickness. All these precautions worked for us!

We hung on tight to the steel rails of the craft as we surged over the ocean. Huge towers of sea spray rose all along the lava cliffs as the waves crashed into the island. This was an elemental experience!

Ahead, we could see a column of steam rising above the rocky shore; that was where the lava was entering the sea. Before long, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blared from the boat’s sound system and we were there. The captain cut the engines to a purr instead of a roar, and we floated back and forth in front of the two lava flows, experiencing the billowing steam and the explosions and the heat of the ocean warmed by the 2,000°F lava. The hiss of the steam and the pounding of the waves made an elemental soundscape, while the bright lava and backlit clouds contrasted beautifully with the deep blue twilight at this time of day. I couldn’t have asked for more … except for more time at this place of wonder. There is never enough time for a photographer on a schedule … so I’ve learned to work fast!

The elemental sight and sound of lava pouring into the sea at twilight

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of HawaiiA portfolio of photographs I took from the bobbing boat at twilight

Alas, time was up, and the captain surged back into the waves for our journey back.

But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. About halfway back, the engines suddenly went quiet. Our momentum came to a halt and we began bobbing in the sea, with no power, not too far from the sharp lava cliffs. The captain and his two crew began struggling the with engines, and discovered that there had been a fuel leak and the fuel tank had been sucked dry of the 100 gallons that had been loaded earlier that day. That was a problem. Meanwhile, the ocean here was too deep for an anchor, so we drifted toward shore. Eventually, it would have become shallow enough to drop anchor, but that would have been close to the shore.

Fortunately, the captain had friends, and he called in a favor from another boat from the harbor to bring out 20 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, we bobbed, and not gently. One person became seasick over the side. Karen called on her Midwestern roots of helpfulness, and walked around the boat offering ginger to the other passengers, and holding her headlamp to help the crew while they fiddled with the engine parts.

The other boat eventually arrived, and the crews transferred the five gallon containers of gas from one bouncing boat to the other. Then the other boat backed off and began slowly circling us as our crew poured the gas into the fuel tank. Eventually, the engines started and we were underway again.

When we returned to port, it was two hours later than we expected. We changed out of our saltwater-soaked clothes and started driving. Fortunately, we had the foresight early in the day to reserve a campsite at the national park in case we didn’t feel like driving back across the island to our vacation rental near Kona that night. As it turned out, we couldn’t drive that far. It was late and the non-drowsy seasickness medication was probably making me drowsy. So we slept in the rental car in our campsite overnight.

The next morning, camp was voggy. Yes, voggy, which is a word coined to describe the Hawaiian toxic soup of fog and volcanic sulfur oxides emitted from the volcanoes. It burned our throats and made us tired and uncomfortable, but I’ll leave the rest of that day for another story.

As you can see from my pictures, the experience of seeing the lava greet the sea was elemental, and another high point of our lives. We feel like we were present for the dawn of creation–as new land was added to the Big Island of Hawaii.

Lava Entering Ocean near Kalapana on Big Island of Hawaii

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

February 22, 2013

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

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Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

LOST

January 30, 2013

Perhaps there was a violent storm raging in the northern Pacific. Perhaps the storm came up suddenly, while the little bird was in flight, starting its migration from Kamchatka to Cambodia. Perhaps the creature became separated from a flock and flew down the Alaska and British Columbia coast instead of the northern Asian coast. Perhaps it was exhausted and a bit desperate. We’ll never know.

All we know is that one Red-flanked Bluetail, entering its own personal Twilight Zone, ended up alone in the winter drizzle of a Vancouver, British Columbia, park. An observant person sketched the bird’s coloration and showed the sketch to an expert, and the unusual visitation was confirmed. This tiny bird of the Russian taiga decided to make the best of its wintering grounds, and began daily circling a little territory under the cedars, which included a childen’s playground, two picnic shelters, and scattered logs and brushy islands where it could perch.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-30-2Showing its identifying colors, this Red-flanked Bluetail is a hemisphere away from its kind

Meanwhile, its arrival spurred a sensation, spread at Facebook and Twitter speed, with birders flocking from all over North America, arriving by plane and car and SkyTrain and on foot, to experience the wonder of this little creature. Some days, there were 60 people at once. The Bluetail was pretty much unperturbed by its newfound celebrity, and went about its rounds regularly, the people following it like disciples following a mystic.

We drove the 220 miles to Vancouver to see the Red-flanked Bluetail on a recent Sunday. At the Canadian border,  the guard asked me the name of the bird when I told him we were going to see a specific bird, and I answered correctly (I think he was trying to trip me up). He let us through, mentioning that they had experienced a lot of people coming north to see it. We drove through busy neighborhoods and ended up in the community of New Westminster, where we entered Queen’s Park. We parked our car, then a local dog walker pointed the way to a small cluster of birders, and we joined them and almost immediately saw the target bird. During the two hours of our visit, there were friendly local Canadians, as well as a man from Georgia and another man from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One young teen was perhaps the best birder there, with acute hearing and vision and a passion for birds that can lead to a life-long obsession.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-20The Bluetail constantly twitched its tail, like some of the closely related flycatchers

Later, we ventured to a neighborhood of old homes in Vancouver, where we wandered down a back alley and trained our binoculars on a thicket in a small yard, where there was another rarity: a Brambling. This one had been reported by a kindly homeowner who fed the birds and noticed a strange one among the regular Golden-crowned Sparrows and House Finches. The Brambling is also from Eurasia, and is a bit more common than the Bluetail (which had last been seen on one of the Channel Islands off Los Angeles).

Still another wanderer, a Citrine Wagtail, was observed for a couple of months on Vancouver Island, beginning in November and ending with its disappearance in January. I didn’t get to see that one, but it was as rare as the Red-flanked Bluetail and also attracted human observers from all over North America.

We can all feel sorry for these lost little souls, so far from their kind and their familiar surroundings. Yet we can also imagine them as castaways, trying to keep life going when the going has gotten rough. Sometimes people have been stranded on remote islands by a storm, and they try to make the best of it. Birds can end up the same way, and sometimes evolution can lead to a whole new line of colorful creatures in an unexpected place.

Carry on, brave little Bluetail. I hope you make it home.

I don’t have the ears or eyes or passion to be a great birder, but I admire those who are. One of my favorite movies of all time is the gentle comedy/drama The Big Year, which follows several birders traveling all over the country trying to see as many different kinds of birds as they can in one year. It stars Steve Martin and Jack Black. Both are great in the film, and play the roles with an uncharacteristic laid back charm.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

November 5, 2012

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

GOLD CREEK POND: Autumn into Winter

October 23, 2012

Berries with an elegant, almost iridescent look against a background of fallen snow

After a wonderfully dry summer, Seattle and the Cascade Mountains have entered autumn. When I heard a report that snow was falling at Snoqualmie Pass, I organized a hike to Gold Creek Pond to try and photograph snow and autumn leaves. The forecast kept changing, so we didn’t know if we were going to encounter drizzle or fresh snow at the 3,000′ trailhead.

When we arrived, there was indeed fresh snow; not enough to need snowshoes, by any means, but just the perfect amount for a day of leisurely photography. There were still yellow leaves of Douglas Maple, blazingly scarlet leaves of Vine Maple, and multi-hued leaves of Red-osier Dogwood.

Gold Creek Pond is an artificial creation, despite its stunning and seemingly natural location surrounded by snowy peaks. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the stretch of I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass was under construction, and this was the location of a borrow pit for obtaining gravel for the road construction. Since the bulldozers and front-end loaders departed the scene, the pit has filled with water and is now a wonderful place for families to come and walk, fish, and picnic. The U.S. Forest Service has guided the process of revegetating the shores of the little lake, and it has become an excellent destination for Seattleites wanting a taste of nature.

On our visit, dramatic clouds briefly revealed the surrounding peaks. We also enjoyed seeing and photographing Kokanee Salmon, which are landlocked salmon that spend much of their lives in a lake, then migrate up the inlet stream to spawn. These are the same species as the Sockeye Salmon I had photographed in the Adams River of Canada, but those ocean-going fish are much larger. These fish look to be about 10-12″ long, but still sport the red-and-green color combination typical of the species when it swims upstream to spawn.

A paved one-mile trail leads around the lake, allowing easy access

Red-osier Dogwood leaves varied dramatically in coloration

Autumn Vine Maple leaves turn a vivid scarlet, looking as elegant as the Japanese Maples that so many people plant in their yards; here I photographed the leaves against a cloudy sky

Peaks surrounding Gold Creek Pond occasionally revealed themselves from behind their cloud masks

Migrating Kokanee Salmon clustered in quiet pools along Gold Creek

This salmon group was resting just above a Beaver dam; the bottom of the pond is lined with sticks the Beavers are saving as a winter food supply

Kokanee Salmon are silver for most of their lives, but when the time comes for their death swim upstream, the pigment in their flesh migrates to the skin and the fish become an elegant shade of red

Small gray birds known as Dippers would sometimes swim over the salmon, causing the fish to scatter in a panic

We don’t know why the salmon stay in such tight clusters at this point in their upstream quest; they are undoubtedly resting in a well-oxygenated pool, and perhaps the tight cluster gives some protection against predators or serves a role in mating. At some point the fish will scatter and establish breeding territories along the stream or around the shallows of the lake

Viewed from above, with the distortions of ripples and current, the salmon look as if captured in an abstract painting

Karen, my wife, has a tradition of creating wonderful snowmen on our hikes, and her creation “Autumn” uses seasonal styling cues to bring on a smile

Snow atop dogwood leaves

Douglas Maple’s yellow autumn leaves bearing a snow load

Bunchberry, also known as Canada Dogwood, with overnight snow

The pond itself sits in a dramatic location not far from I-90

The evergreen forest with its first major snow of the autumn

Vine Maple leaves against a light gray cloudy sky

When I visited in late October, the conditions were great for a late autumn hike. Be aware that conditions change constantly at Snoqualmie Pass, and be prepared for winter weather. Soon enough it will be snowshoe season at Gold Creek Pond.

For more information about the Gold Creek Pond area, go to Forest Service Gold Creek Trail; or go to trip reports and a trail description at Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


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