Archive for January 2012

SNOWFALL IN SEATTLE: Oh, the Humanity!

January 23, 2012

Pike Place Market, nearly deserted during a rare snowstorm

I was standing in the middle of the street, intently looking through the viewfinder at a neon sign on the roof of the Pike Place Market, when I heard a shout from inside the market and a fishmonger pointing at me:

“Look out!”

My first thought was: “hey, you talkin’ to me?”

Then my brain kicked in and I turned around to face the threat–a dark sedan sliding somewhat sideways down the hill directly toward me. Adrenalin pumping, I backed off the street as the car managed to slide into the turn successfully at the bottom of the hill. Death averted.

Seattle and snow blend about as well as slugs and salt. It just isn’t something that people here deal with very often, so Seattlites don’t have the infrastructure or the driving ability to deal with these snowstorms that happen every few years.

Seattle is so full of kindly liberals that people knit sweaters for the city’s trees (actually, this is part of Suzanne Tidwell’s wonderful exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park)

This storm brought perhaps 5″ of snow to downtown Seattle. If you come from a part of the country that experiences macho snowfalls (as I did, coming from Syracuse two decades ago), 5″ will seem puny–hardly worth dragging out the snowblower for. But Seattle has hills … really steep hills right downtown that cause your calves to scream with rage as you hike upslope. And there are few snowplows. During a big storm in the 1990s that took many days to clean up, I remember the mayor saying pitifully that “we only have seven snowplows!”

Cross-country skier commuting to work on 1st Avenue

There is also a Seattle aversion to salting the roads. In the last big snowstorm, several years ago, the city government expressed a horror about the environmental impact of salt and the salty runoff trickling down into Puget Sound. My first reaction was incredulity, as in: “Puget Sound is already … SALTWATER!” Fortunately, the old salts prevailed and the city now uses salt, though not really enough.

Snow affects Seattle politics. In December 2008, then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was the guy who refused to use salt on the roads, so they were icy from December 13-27, causing traffic problems and accidents for the whole two weeks. I remember barely making it to the airport that year for our Christmas flight, after getting ensnared in a traffic jam on back roads that were so completely coated with ice that they looked like skating rinks.

Cyclamens and ferns enduring the snowy day in Waterfall Garden Park

Seattle’s mayor had a second PR problem in the snows that year. I recall a media report that the city’s road maintenance department took it upon themselves to plow a road directly from the mayor’s home to city hall, rather than plowing out major streets first. Of course, citizens were outraged, even after the mayor exclaimed that he had nothing to do with that decision.  Largely as a result of the snowstorm problems, the mayor didn’t even make it through the primary elections the next year.

Hammering Man, a sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky to celebrate workers, works 24/7 through the storm

On the morning of the heavy snowfall this year, Karen and I trudged from our Bremerton apartment to the ferry bound for Seattle, wearing waterproof L.L. Bean boots, the parkas we wore on an Antarctic trip a decade ago, heavy mittens, and woolen hats from Kathmandu. Karen was heading to her job in the marble corridors of a law office, and I was going to spend the day documenting the Seattle snowfall. It was a cold and wet day, with constant light snowfall, but I was able to get the selection of photographs you see here.

Seattle was virtually deserted that morning, save for a few hardy office workers who were able to take transit of some sort, since ferries, light rail, heavy rail, and some buses were operational. The buses wore chains, as did most delivery vehicles. That night, when returning home, Karen had trouble descending the steep hills on foot, as the colder evening temperatures turned slush to ice. The problem?  Not enough salt to keep the sidewalks safe. So she telecommuted the next day.

The Smith Tower, once the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi, rises above one of the old brick buildings of Pioneer Square. The brick building has a faded ad for the Washington State Ferries that says “Have Lunch Over Seas,” which is a playful thing to do when crossing Puget Sound.

The homeless were still on the streets during the storm; after all, where else would they be? I asked one homeless man if I could take his picture; he was wearing a gray snowflake-covered blanket draped over his head, and he was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, exhaling a cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air in front of his dark face. Alas, he said “No, I don’t think so.” I offered him money, and he said he didn’t need any. So, that one great picture will just have to stay forever etched in my mind.

Space needle with satellite dishes pointed toward space

Alaskan Way, nearly deserted of traffic on this snowy morning

Photograph I was taking while a car silently slid toward me down a hill

Snowboarders hoping to find a steep hill with enough snow downtown

The homeless have it especially tough in this weather; yes, there are warm shelters, but some people choose to sleep in doorways

A woman making her way through the sidewalk slush of Pioneer Square

People out and about in Pioneer Square, enjoying the rare snowy day

Suzanne Tidwell’s exhibit of knitted trees in Occidental Park, looking especially festive against the simple backdrop of snow

Tsonqua sculpture by Chinook Tribe artist Duane Pasco in Seattle’s Occidental Park, with a gull surveying the scene at the top of the totem

To fulfill their delivery mission, UPS trucks wear tire chains on these slippery and hilly streets

Cabs were a good way to get around the city, though it would have been a challenging job to be a taxi driver on a day like this

Cross-country skier on a pier, with container cranes in the distance

Snowman with pansy corsage I observed along the waterfront

Home of The Jetsons–actually, it is the monorail from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair passing through Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s addition to the city–the EMP Museum (think Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana), designed by Frank Gehry

A sign preserved from the Skid Road era of Seattle

Witch Hazel blooming in January, in Waterfall Garden Park

Alley in Pioneer Square

By the way, here are a couple of not-to-be-missed videos of a skier launching off a high park in Seattle:

http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/2012/01/20/watch-skiers-somersault-off-cliff-at-seattles-kerry-park/

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; 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

SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle

January 12, 2012

Snowy Owl and the rising January full moon, known as the Wolf Moon

As twilight descended, a Snowy Owl gazed at us from a driftwood stump, alert with the promise of hunting in the coming hours. Just then, a reddish-orange moon rose above the horizon, over Grays Harbor along Washington State’s Pacific Ocean coast. Realizing the opportunity, I moved quickly into position, hoping to photograph the rising moon directly behind the sitting owl. The opportunity lasted about 30 seconds, then the moon distorted as clouds ate away at its edges. This brief experience capped a perfect day of watching and photographing Snowy Owls.

The owls use their wings to help lift themselves up to a higher point on a log

Since we have lived in Washington State, this was the third coming of the normally arctic Snowy Owls. There was one in 2006, and prior to that in the mid-1990s. I photographed the owls both times at Damon Point State Park–the place we returned to on January 8, 2012. This year there are a whole host of Hedwigs–Harry Potter’s pet Snowy Owl–at Damon Point, lending a wonderful opportunity to see this charismatic visitor from the arctic.

Damon Point sticks out into Grays Harbor, and is a spit of land constantly renewed and reshaped by harbor currents.  In fact, the landscape had changed so much since our last visit that we didn’t even recognize it.  There is a short asphalt road that leads directly into the ocean–a road to nowhere that used to lead far out on Damon Point.  It was washed away in winter storms, and now visitors have to hike out along the beach to Damon Point.

An alert Snowy Owl, with its bright yellow eyes staring at the photographer

This was the second time this winter we have seen Snowy Owls. The first time was in Michigan, during Christmas, when we were visiting family. We could have seen up to six Snowies at Tawas Point, a spur of land sticking out into Lake Huron that is probably a lot like the Damon Point landscape (minus the spectacular view of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains over saltwater). But that was too far to drive with family, so we instead spent a couple of pleasant hours at the Muskegon sewage treatment facilities–located right next to the Muskegon dump–where we saw two Snowy Owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch.

The first time we ever saw Snowy Owls was during the mid-1980s, when we were living in Upstate New York. That year, the owls gathered along the lonely shoreline of Lake Ontario and were undoubtedly also visiting Michigan, Washington State, and the entire tier of far northern states.

The photographers we observed kept a respectful distance from the owls, and used long lenses to get close views

So, the Snowy Owls come down from their normal arctic home about once every decade, in a winter-long invasion that is known as an irruption. Birders long thought that the owls came south because they were hungry. But this year, a new theory has emerged. There was an excellent crop of arctic lemmings during the summer of 2011, which led to the survival and maturing of an excellent crop of Snowy Owls. This high concentration of owls wasn’t sustainable over the bleak midwinter, so many of the owls dispersed southward to the areas we are seeing them now. According to the new theory, they are not starving and are not under a lot of stress. In fact, their lives don’t look too bad; they seem to be enjoying a coastal winter of sleeping and eating–much like the human snowbirds who head to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

Damon Point State Park is a spit of land that is constantly changing, as ocean currents add to it or nibble away at its features

Snowy Owls prefer to winter in places that remind them of home: flat and mostly treeless expanses that are reminiscent of arctic tundra. That’s why some of the best places to see them are airports and wild lands along shores of the Pacific Ocean and Great Lakes. One Snowy Owl took the winter vacation concept a bit too seriously, and ended up at the Honolulu airport in late 2011. It was the first Snowy ever recorded in Hawaii, and it was promptly shot by overzealous airport officials (something about an illegal foreign national threatening an airport …).

At sunset, warm light bathed the owls; after a day of lounging, they were getting ready for the evening hunt

Back to Damon Point. Visiting this lonely stretch of land is always a wonderful experience. On our 2006 visit, we saw the remains of a lost shipwreck that was melting out of the sands. The S.S. Catala had an interesting history, according to a June 2, 2006 article in the Seattle Times:

“Built in Scotland in 1925, the steamer carried woodsmen and miners from British Columbia to Alaska before serving as a floating hotel in Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It ended up being towed to Ocean Shores to be a hotel for charter fishermen — complete with poker games and prostitutes — until it tipped over in a storm in 1965.”

In 2006, the S.S. Catala was determined to be leaking oil and was completely scrapped by the State of Washington.

On our 2012 visit, there were surfers and birders and beachcombers and photographers … perhaps 30 serious photographers. This was a huge change from my previous visits. In the mid-1990s, I don’t remember any other photographers out there. I was using film, and exposures of the white owls were tricky (it didn’t help that my lab made a mistake and processed my three days of owl slides at the wrong setting). Now, wildlife photography, even of white owls, is amazingly easy. We can check our exposures and focus immediately and adjust accordingly. This winter will produce an incredible number of great Snowy Owl photographs from hundreds upon hundreds of photographers.

So, what do the owls eat in a landscape lacking lemmings?  Ducks and rats and mice and voles and yappy little dogs. Okay, I made up the last prey item; on the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past them … so if you love little Pooky, keep her on a leash!

We observed about ten Snowy Owls at Damon Point on January 8. There were almost certainly more, as there is a whole area of the peninsula that we did not visit. The hike out to see the owls near the point is about 1.5 miles each way. The owls generally sit on driftwood logs and stumps that are low to the ground. I learned that as the winter progresses, these flat-and-barren-land owls get used to the idea of vertical space–as in trees–and start using higher vantage points. We noticed some doing this already, though most perched low to the ground.

Snowy Owl in flight over Damon Point. Ideally, there would be few owl flights during the day, but with so many visitors coming to see the owls, occasionally one will get disturbed and take flight for a hundred yards or so.

During the day, the owls are mostly napping. When a birder or photographer or dog walker gets within a bird’s comfort zone, it may snap open its yellow eyes and check out the intruder. If it feels threatened, it will take flight and head off a hundred yards or so to a more isolated perch. So, if you go, keep this comfort zone in mind and act responsibly so that others can view the owls.

Alpenglow on Mount Rainier, viewed over Grays Harbor from Damon Point

After photographing the Snowy Owl against the Wolf Moon (one traditional name for the January full moon), we watched the intense pink alpenglow fade on Mount Rainier and saw the last sunset glow fade from the clouds over the Pacific Ocean. The long walk back along beach was accompanied by the cadence of crashing waves and the crunch of cockle shells underfoot.

The January “Wolf Moon” rose over Grays Harbor at sunset, capping off a wonderful day on the coast

Birds ruffle their feathers to rearrange them, fluff them, and presumably make them a more comfortable covering; owls are no exception. It amazes me that this chaos of feathers ends up perfectly arranged.

Humans, dogs, and owls like a nice muscle stretch after staying in the same position for a long period

Sunset glow on an owl getting ready to hunt

The owls liked to perch on or near one of the numerous driftwood logs and stumps washed in by winter storms

A wildlife photographer in beautiful light, just waiting for the perfect composition

Immature and female Snowy Owls tend to be darker, with more patterning, than the nearly pure white adult males; although rules like this are made to be broken

Using its wings to help hop higher on a beach log; wouldn’t it be great if we had wings to help us hop up mountains?

These owls are graceful flyers, with strong and rhythmic wingbeats

In flight over the grassy beach at Damon Point, with a few short conifers in the distance

A sleepy Snowy Owl yawning (I am so prone to yawning that I yawned as I looked at this picture and typed this caption)

Flying to a quieter location farther out on the point

Waves lapping in along the beach of Damon Point, where we observed the shells of delicious Razor Clams and Heart Cockles

We absolutely loved this day of birding along the outer coast!

For further information about Damon Point State Park, go to Damon Point State Park; there was no sign for the park on our January 2012 visit, but it sits directly adjacent to a private campground, and there are usually cars parked neatly off the road at the entrance.  Birders tend to like Subarus, so just look for the Subarus. The owls will probably be at Damon Point until March 2012.  Then it will be years before they return.

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