Birds Among the Ancient Pines

While camping in California’s White Mountains, Karen and I photographed a few birds in the Bristlecone Pine forest, and in Limber Pine and Pinyon-Juniper forests.  This was a magical trip, with frosty mountain weather and stunning, seemingly Tolkien-inspired forests.  We were there primarily to photograph the Bristlecones, but when a few birds showed their pretty faces, we spent some quality time with them.  These are my favorite bird photographs from those wonderful days in October.

.Clark’s Nutcracker feeding on the seeds within Limber Pine cones.


A camp-robber Mountain Chickadee swooped down from this Utah Juniper and began feeding on our carrot cake muffins sitting on the picnic table.

.A Western Scrub-Jay joined the Mountain Chickadee in foraging on our picnic table.  Did you know that these birds like Jarlsberg Cheese imported from Norway?

.A Mountain Bluebird pauses to look at me from the trunk of one of the oldest trees on earth (well, it used to be, now it’s dead), the Great  Basin Bristlecone Pine.


This Clark’s Nutcracker used two adjacent branches as its perch while probing Limber Pine cones.

.A female or juvenile Cassin’s Finch is well-camouflaged by the trunk of this dead Bristlecone Pine at above an 11,000′ elevation.


A Western Scrub-Jay looks down at our breakfast table like a vulture.


This experience gave us our best close views we’ve ever had of Mountain Chickadees.


A Clark’s Nutcracker with a Limber Pine seed it its bill.

.Two Clark’s Nutcrackers feeding on Limber Pine seeds.


With a stunning flash of elegant black, white, and gray, a Clark’s Nutcracker takes off to fly to another tree.


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Night Among the Ancients


The night sky provided a dazzling background for an old Bristlecone Pine..

It was about 20°F at over 11,000 feet in elevation in California’s White Mountains.  The sky was inky black, dazzling with uncountable stars, and we were photographing a dead Bristlecone Pine using the universe as a background.  This tree had fallen, perhaps centuries ago, and the root system made a graceful shape against the sky.  The pine itself may have stood for 2,000 or more years before a high wind toppled it from its ridgetop perch, and the pine lay preserved by the dryness and cold through the untold years.  Karen found this pine during the day, and we decided to return and photograph it after dark.

The sliver of moon set shortly after sunset, so we had a perfectly black sky..

Our challenge was to light the tree in the foreground using a flashlight, while attempting to balance that exposure with the light of the distant stars.  We needed to “paint” the tree with just the right amount of light and to get a short enough exposure that the stars appeared as points of light (and not arcs of light, which longer exposures show because of the earth’s movement relative to the stars).  Karen moved the flashlight over the roots while I worked with the camera settings and counted the passing seconds out loud.  We did about 40 exposures, of which about a third were excellent.

By the time we finished, we were chilled to the bone from the frosty temperatures and still had to set up camp.  But we were pleased with the results.

This type of photograph would have been much more difficult before the advent of digital photography, and technically would not have been nearly as effective.  With digital, the ISO speed can be set at 3200 and provide good results, and the exposures and composition can be roughly checked on the LCD screen after the photograph is taken, so adjustments can be immediately made in the exposure.  For even more control, the camera can be cabled to a computer to check the results on the spot at higher resolution, but we were traveling light and didn’t bring a laptop.

Bristlecone Pines are the oldest trees on earth, and I find that these photographs take me to a place in the mind where I can contemplate the meanings of the universe and life on earth.

A vertical photograph emphasizes the magnificent sky.



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The Ghost of Bodie Past


The ghost of Bodie occasionally appears in a window..

Please allow me to introduce myself:  my name is Boots McGee.  I was hanged by a mob in Bodie back in 1883.  They broke down the door of the jail, shoved the sheriff aside, and yanked me out of the cell.  Then they carried me kicking and screaming to the headframe for the Red Cloud Mine and used a horse to string me up by the neck.  I died choking and gasping two minutes later.

The thing is, I didn’t shoot Doc Smith that night in the Yellow Dog Tavern.  The real killer was a one-armed man who was good with a gun in his remaining hand, and he shot Doc when everyone else had dived under the tables.  But Doc, with his dying words, said that he saw me with the smoking gun.  If Doc hadn’t delivered so many babies and treated so many liver ailments, people might not have believed him.  But here I was, a down on my luck miner who was drunk on rotgut that night, and someone heard me threaten Doc because he charged me too much for removing a bullet from my butt.  So here I am.

We ghosts don’t really like to hang around; after all, there is a sweet afterlife that we would like to spend eternity in.  But some of us get stuck in a place and time and can’t get out.  It has something to do with the unfairness of the act that killed us.  If only I could turn back time.  But I can’t, so for now I float down from the graveyard on the hill with the cool night air.  If you see my shape in a dark window, or hear a door creak on a still morning when nobody is around, that would be me.  And I’ll probably be here for as long as the last weathered boards remain on the Methodist Church and as long as the last granite headstone remains in the graveyard.

I might as well tell you a bit about my little town.  Gold was discovered in these hills by Waterman S. Bodey back in 1859.  I came in the gold rush that

Bodie sits below the hills where the gold came from..

followed, and staked a claim up in the hills east of town.  I dug some gold early on and made some money, enough that I could visit the taverns every night, Lottie’s house of red lights on Saturday night, and the Methodist Church on Sunday mornings.  Well, maybe a few Sunday mornings, anyway.

By 1879, the town had grown to 10,000 people and had a reputation as a hellhole filled with drunks and prostitutes and outlaws.  But a lot of gold was coming out of the ground from all the mines, so people put up with all the evil.  One man of God, the Reverend F. M. Warrington called our town “a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.”  Sounds like my kind of place, doesn’t it?

All good and evil things eventually come to an end, and Bodie’s end came soon after the last mine shut down in 1941.  Without a reason to go on, the town emptied out completely.  People left old belongings in their homes, and the school’s hundreds of desks were left as if ghost students still took their daily lessons.

The creaking front door of the Tom Miller house..

I was lonely here for a long time, with just occasional curious folks and vandals visiting this remote place.  But in 1962, the great state of California made my home town a state historic park that is kept in a state of “arrested decay.”  Now I have lots of visitors to haunt, so the only times I get lonely are during the long and frigid winters, when only a few folks on skis and snowmobiles make it up here.

It looked like I would never leave this place, since California has been preventing Bodie from disappearing back into the earth.  But in 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger put Bodie on a list of state parks to shut down because the state has run out of money to keep parks open.  That is my best hope for getting out of here.  If the state allows Bodie to fall apart and blow away, I might finally get to see heaven because I’ll have nowhere to stay here on earth.

The Methodist Church reflected in the windows of a doorway..

A child’s coffin in the town’s morgue..

Streetscape of weathered buildings in Bodie..


Without a little propping up, these outhouses would have blown down in the cold wind.

The Standard Mill processed millions of dollars of gold..

The Methodist Church, built in 1882, held its last service in 1932..

The owner of the town’s morgue slept in an adjacent room..

Layers of paint speak to fashions and time passing..

Reflections on the front door windows of the Pat Reddy house..

A billiards table waits for ghostly players in the old Wheaton & Hollis Hotel..

Togetherness reigned in the Kirkwood House two-hole outhouse..

Steel shingles in attractive rusty shades cover some of Bodie’s exterior walls..

Display windows of the Boone Store and Warehouse reflect the setting..

The interior of the Boone Store & Warehouse has original artifacts on display..

Table in the Tom Miller house set for guests who never came..

A 1927 Dodge Graham truck waits for a fill-up at the Shell gas pumps..

A deer head has survived the decades in the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel..

Before a major fire, Bodie was 20 times as large..

The Swazey Hotel awaits visitors from the past..

Lace curtains add a feminine touch to the Murphy house..

James Stuart Cain, a wealthy businessman, had a beautiful house..

The Wheaton & Hollis Hotel is a classic false front commercial building..

If you want to visit Bodie, there are some good websites to help plan your trip and learn a bit of real history (as opposed to my made-up history!) of this wonderful ghost town.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to

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