Archive for June 2011

RING AROUND THE SUN: Changing Weather Ahead

June 28, 2011

Cirrus clouds and a 22° Halo around the sun, with contrails signaling jets passing overhead

Eyes and cameras raised, squinting at the glaring sun, we were amazed as an unexpected phenomenon took place in the sky. There was a perfect halo circling the sun, showing the faint colors of a rainbow. Nature once again put on a great show, this one visible from the park where I was showing my photography in suburban Portland, Oregon.

Sky phenomena are the result of physics, so bear with my numbers and technical information. My photographs show several aspects of the phenomenon, which is known as the “22° Halo.” It was quite wide in the sky, and I barely captured the whole circle with a wide 24mm lens. The rainbow prism is almost precisely at 22° out from the center of the sun. There is a second ring visible in the corners of the photo; this is a 46° Halo, which is supposed to be rarer than the 22° Halo. The sky color inside the 22° Halo is darker than the sky color outside the ring.

A faint second halo appears at 46°

These halos are caused by incoming thin and wispy cirrus clouds, which are often a harbinger of coming rain after a sunny day (indeed, it rained the next day after this halo). These clouds consist of tiny, hexagonal ice crystals; when sunlight passes through the crystals, it refracts out at the 22° angle and separates into the colors of a prism.

That’s the extent of my technical knowledge, but once again, seeing something new in nature revived my sense of wonder. And isn’t that one of the wonderful aspects of being outdoors?

Another view of the wispy cirrus clouds with the sun, signaling a change in the weather 

One word of warning: I was extremely careful in pointing my camera at the sun and looking through the viewfinder not to look directly at the sun. The human retina is fragile and can be burnt beyond repair. Don’t look directly into the sun!

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

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

THE BOTANY OF EXPIRE

June 15, 2011

The support structure for the gigantic flower of Amorphophallus titanum–an elegant example of plant architecture

Life goes to all lengths to get sex; after all, without sex, we have no birds, bees, or babies. But some sex is just plain weird, as in the case of the Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum). Think about the root meaning of those Latin words for a moment, and you will understand why Sir David Attenborough came up with the less “dirty” name of Titan Arum to use in his BBS television series, The Secret Life of Plants, instead of the scientific name.

Corpse Flower is a gigantic botanical simulation of rotting meat, complete with a fetid odor and a deep burgundy color to help create the illusion. It even raises its own temperature to make the illusion of decomposing meat more real. And who is it trying to attract with all this grossness? Why, carrion beetles and flesh flies, of course, which are its pollinators! Everything it does, it does for sex–kind of like some politicians who make the news, but we won’t go there …

Impressive in size, the Corpse Flower blooms only occasionally through the years, and sports the color, temperature, and fetid smell of a large rotting animal

I went to the University of Washington botany greenhouses in Seattle, after seeing a story in the Seattle Times about how this plant was about to bloom. On that afternoon of June 9, I joined about 60 people in line to wait for our chance to file past the magnificent plant and experience its sensory pleasures. Alas, my sense of smell is not working well because of seasonal allergies, so I couldn’t smell a thing. It’s just as well, based on some of the descriptions of the gag-inducing stink, which is said to be so bad that it can make a person’s eyes water.

Anyway, the plant was gigantic and most impressive; those of us who stood in line were rewarded with the chance to climb a ladder and look down inside the flower. The cutest among us were also rewarded with having pictures taken by a media photographer (he didn’t bother with me).

Climbing a ladder to view the Corpse Flower’s interior

Corpse Flower lives naturally in the Sumatra rainforest, but it has relatives here in North America, including Calla Lily and Skunk Cabbage. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which grows in swamps in places I’ve lived, including Michigan and New York, also has a meat color, strong odor, and the ability to generate heat–which helps it melt snow in early spring, AND to spread its wondrous odor better.

Now the flowering event is over, and it is time to patiently wait for that 100+ lb. root to decide that it’s time once again to surprise us with a magnificent bloom. It might happen in a couple of years, or perhaps in a human lifetime. Nobody knows, and that is part of the wonder of its nature.

University of Washington botany greenhouse, with the Corpse Flower visible inside

Virtually everyone took a picture of the gigantic flower

Wikipedia has a good article about the natural history of this amazing plant; go to: Corpse Flower.

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

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

WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

June 9, 2011

This male Mountain Bluebird took a big beetle into the nest box and left it for the nestlings; apparently he realized that he had made a mistake, because next time he came back to the box, he grabbed the beetle back and left the box with it

When I was a boy, my friend across the street loved butterflies, and he ran around the neighborhood with a butterfly net in hand, with one of those intense passions that young boys often develop. I didn’t share his butterfly passion, but I also loved being outdoors. The boys in the neighborhood all had bikes, and we would bike into town or to a park several miles away or to a baseball diamond for a pickup game. The freedom of summer was a wonderful, unstructured time that allowed for childhood exploration and creativity, without today’s parental concerns about evil lurking down the street.

The bright purples and yellows of spring wildflowers attract older people with their beauty–and they attract butterflies and bugs and thus kids who take a natural interest in insects

So it was wonderful to see a mother and her seven year old son–I’ll call him “Tim”–having a wonderful time outdoors at the recent Wenas State Audubon Campout that Karen and I attended. Tim watched Red-Naped Sapsuckers drilling into a tree; found the first Grass Widow flower on a botany hike; and spent a lot of time chasing and catching grasshoppers in the mountain meadows. He and his mother were car-pooling with us for two hikes; at the end of one hike he walked up to me and said that he hoped I didn’t die, because I was the driver to get him back to camp. Kids say the darndest things!

Tim wasn’t the only child on the trip. Among the 120+ Audubon campers, there were roughly a dozen children, all of whom seemed to be having a great time. I wish there had been more. In Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he stated his mission of “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.” His thesis is that unstructured time in nature is important for children, for their intellectual and creative development, and that they are not getting this vital childhood experience. He believes that this lack of nature experiences fuels the obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression that have become much more common in recent years.

A young ground squirrel ready to duck into its burrow for safety from the big, mean humans

Let’s face it: we all spend too much time in front of colorful electronic screens. Children are not exempt, and the addictive [I use that word intentionally and from personal experience] nature of activities on computers, game consoles, and smart phones may be especially dangerous for young minds that need broad experiences, not the simple stimulus/reward experiences of gaming, Facebook, instant messaging, and online shopping.

End of rant. Just get you and your kids out there enjoying nature close to home or far away!

The Wenas State Audubon Campout is a great place to spend Memorial Day Weekend. The Wenas Campground, once a Boise Cascade public campground now owned by the State of Washington, is a big, flat Ponderosa Pine forest along Wenas Creek on the drier east side of the Cascade Mountains. People are

Camping at Wenas Campground under Ponderosa Pines and among lupines

Our campsite during a rainy evening in 2010

free to camp anywhere, except within 50′ of the creek, and the place can absorb probably thousands of campers. In the past few years, there have been groups of ATV riders and horse riders, in addition to the Audubon campers. Everyone needs to bring their own food, cooking supplies, and water. This year Karen and I set up a cook tent, in addition to our sleeping tent, because last year it rained while we were cooking.

Who can go?  Anyone.  Arrive any time and leave any time. There is no formal structure, except for meeting at assigned times for particular hikes. And that informal flexibility is part of the beauty of the weekend. There are no fees, except the voluntary donations for portable toilets and for the group camping permit. The weekend is filled with free group hikes to see birds and wildflowers in mountain and sagebrush habitats, plus campfire programs and owl prowls.

Owl Prowl leader Neil Zimmerman called in a tiny Pygmy Owl at the campground’s edge using his voice and recorded sounds; here it is illuminated by flashlight

It is so enjoyable that I’m surprised that many more people don’t take advantage of the experience.

It was wonderful to spend the weekend with people of all levels of knowledge and who are willing to share that knowledge. We saw our second Pygmy Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl on this trip, and last year we saw our first Long-Eared Owls. Don Knoke led some memorable botany hikes, and we had a chance to see an unusual native Brown Peony for the first time. Knoke also sets up plant identification boards around the Larrimer Tree, a big Ponderosa Pine

Plants of the sagebrush-steppe community, identified for we rain forest mossbacks of the Puget Sound area

along the stream, with a wide selection of native plants kept alive in little tube vases and on display so that people can learn about the different wildflowers of the sagebrush-steppe community.

This year we enjoyed a special new experience–visiting and birding 400+ acre Green Ranch in the Wenas Valley, now owned by a woman who had been a part of the Audubon Campout for years. She is dedicated to good stewardship of the land, which consists of riverbank forest, open pastures, and a beautiful old

Classic old barn interior on a Wenas Valley ranch

barn and outbuildings–as well as a collection (inherited from the previous owner) of several dozen old and decaying Volvos lined up near the barns; you may have heard of Cadillac Ranch; some people have called this Volvo Ranch! Note that this ranch is private land, and the visit during the Wenas Campout was by private invitation.

Over 40 of us went birding on Green Ranch, by special invitation of the owner, where we saw a good variety of birds, including Bullock’s Oriole, Western Tanager, lots of warblers, and a Wild Turkey egg

The Wenas Audubon Campout just completed its 48th year, so it is a well-established tradition that I hope will continue for decades to come. Legendary nature-lover Hazel Wolf was instrumental in getting the weekend started all those years ago, and she attended for decades until she passed away in the year 2000, at over 100 years old.

Big-Head Clover, with a flower nearly two inches across, is a lovely part of some sagebrush-steppe meadows

A beautiful meadow bordered by Trembling Aspens along the rutted and Beaver-flooded road to the campground (still, accessible to most cars)

Graceful shapes of slowly decaying sagebrush branches; especially artistic in black & white

In the photographs here you can get a sense of the natural environment and the creatures we saw during the long weekends (we have now attended for two years in a row). Don’t miss this experience next year!

Go to Wenas Audubon Campout for more information about these special weekends.

Western Bluebird male perched in Bitterbrush

Lazuli Bunting testing his lung power in a desert aria

Common Camas, a beautiful blue lily of wet meadows, was a staple food of Indians of the far west, who used the bulbs as a potato-like vegetable

With their elegant red bark contrasting with the green vegetation, the Ponderosa Pines of the Wenas Valley are the dominant large conifer

When the lighting is just right, the intensity of a male Mountain Bluebird’s feathers is extraordinary

An impressionistic view of balsamroot and buckwheat in a high meadow

Bitterbrush displays delicate yellow flowers in the spring

Townsend’s Solitaire in Bitterbrush

A graceful tapestry of Ponderosa Pine needles and branches photographed during our owl prowl

Eastern Kingbird perched on Bitterbrush

A brown cup fungus under the campground’s Ponderosa Pines

Black Canyon Trail through sagebrush-clad slopes

Female Mountain Bluebird examining the birders examining it

A Least Chipmunk feeding atop a fencepost

Pygmy Nuthatch emerging from its nest hole with a fecal sac (diaper) from one of its nestlings

In this dry country, wood weathers slowly and gracefully, as in this old fencepost end

Thompson’s Paintbrush is a creamy paintbrush common to the sagebrush-steppe

Chipping Sparrow singing his head off from atop a Bitterbrush branch

And now for something completely different: an abandoned truck among the Ponderosa Pines that has been on state land for at least two years along the road to a university sky observatory

Bullet holes and rust form a fanciful creature on the side of the blue truck

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

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

Exploring Black Canyon in Central Washington State

June 2, 2011

A fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl tries to sleep while I’m watching

In a willow thicket, a squat shape with a rusty color surprised my eyes. We were hoping to see owls, but this looked so SMALL compared with the Long-Eared Owls we had hoped to see. After photographing it for a time, which took a lot of pretzel contortions on the part of me and my tripod to get a graceful view through the willow branches, I worked with Karen and other hikers to identify the bird, which turned out to be a fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl–a fierce predator of mice and bugs, at least after Mommy and Daddy teach it to hunt.

After photographing the owl, I looked around for other fledglings in the Trembling Aspen grove surrounding an old settler’s cabin, and stumbled over (literally!) a fallen cottonwood log containing Oyster Mushrooms, which are a favorite with us (soaked in salt water to remove the white worms and black beetles–which should put off most people–then rinsed and fried in pure butter until the gills are browned and crispy. It is basically mushroom-flavored crunchy butter!). Karen gathered the mushrooms while I continued photographing the owl, which paid absolutely no attention to me.

After we finished these activities, we seached the aspen grove for more owls, to no avail. There was a group of backpackers camped at the cabin, which may have influenced where Momma and Papa Long-Ear told their babies to stay.

An old log cabin in an aspen grove

This was our third hiking trip into Black Canyon in the span of four years; we enjoy going back for the birding and wildflowers, which are so different from what we find at our rain forest home. The trail follows a steep old jeep road (now closed to vehicles) up into the canyon, which is a steep-sided gouge into Umtanum Ridge. Carved by a stream, the canyon consists of dramatic basalt formations poking out of slopes covered with wildflowers, Giant Sagebrush, Bitterbrush, and scattered Ponderosa Pines. The canyon bottom is lush with shrubs and trees where the stream and groundwater bathe the roots. The settler’s cabin, located a long mile above the trailhead, must have been a pleasant place to live, with abundant water and enough trees to build the cabin.

Hiking down the Black Canyon trail back to the trailhead

Wildlife is a key part of the experience here. A Golden Eagle soared above the canyon rim as we started the recent hike; a Loggerhead Shrike hunted from a branch as we ended our second hike. Karen surprised a rattlesnake hiding in the grass on our first hike. The aspens have vertical inscriptions left by Elk feeding on the inner bark. Vivid red-and-green Lewis’s Woodpeckers feed on the slopes. Coyotes travel the trail, leaving their sign. There are undoubtedly Cougars hunting among the rocks, probably watching us as we poke along.

The photographs here represent our three hikes into the canyon. If you go, be prepared for ticks and rattlesnakes. The land is owned by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; a parking pass is required for parking at the trailhead.

Three of the four fledgling Long-Eared Owls we observed on a prior trip into Black Canyon

Basalt formations protrude from the slope, which is blanketed with sagebrush-steppe vegetation

Loggerhead Shrike hunting in the rain. Years ago, during an Ontario winter, we observed where a shrike had stored mice for later use by impaling them on the namesake 1.5″ thorns of hawthorns. 

Fledgling Long-Eared Owl. This species often hides well in the trees by standing tall and thin–like a branch. They can be surprisingly hard to see when they do this.

Western Rattlesnake along the Black Canyon Trail, coiled and ready

Ponderosa Pines along the trail

For more information about the trail and how to drive to the trailhead, as well as recent trail reports, go to Washington Trails Association/Black Canyon

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

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