Archive for the ‘behavior’ category

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

March 12, 2014

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

February 8, 2014

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

Seattle_Green_Lake-237

Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

Seattle_Green_Lake-267

Seattle_Green_Lake-291

Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

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 NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

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.

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

Samish_Flats-69-2

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

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 2: Sharing Camp with Mountain Goats

January 7, 2013

Mountain Goat with Prusik Peak and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmeThe magic of The Enchantments in one photograph: a Mountain Goat, golden Alpine Larches, and Prusik Peak on a flawless October morning

Mountain Goat Nanny atop Granite in The EnchantmentsA big nanny stares down at our camp from atop a granite boulder

Mountain Goat Nanny Resting on a Snowfield in The EnchantmentsMountain Goats shared our campsite with us each day; this nanny is chewing her cud while relaxing on a snow field, with golden Alpine Larches in the distance

When we awoke on the third morning, one of our companions said “Hey, everyone; there are Mountain Goats out here!” We quickly donned warm layers and grabbed camera gear, then scrambled out of the tent. A nanny and her kid were just outside our tents, and appeared to be waiting for something. A playdate, perhaps, just like a meeting in Green Lake Park of the nannies and kids of Seattle’s high tech wealthy? I’ll get to that later; but for now the wonder of the experience of being so close to these wild creatures was awe-inspiring.

Mountain Goat Seen from Tent Opening in The EnchantmentsLooking out the door of my tent, with a Mountain Goat in the meadow

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA young Mountain Goat, just sprouting its horns, standing on a granite boulder with Perfection Lake behind

Mountain Goat Kid Standing atop Rock in The EnchantmentsA Mountain Goat kid often stands on boulders, testing its climbing ability and keeping an eye on Mom

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing among Mountain Bog GentiansThe kid also enjoyed grazing on sedges in the subalpine meadow, but he spared the beautiful gentians (something about them tasting like broccoli!)

The kid was adept at climbing boulders and clinging to steep rock faces where I wouldn’t venture. This early practice gave the little guy–and he was a guy, according to one of the human female members of our merry band of hikers–good preparation for the long winter ahead, when all the humans are long gone from the high country, snow is twenty feet deep atop the frozen lakes, and the winds begin to howl. During that time, the nanny and kid will be high on the cliffs of The Enchantments, using their best tool–their flexible hooves–to cling to sheer faces and dig for dried sedges and other bits of nourishment. It must be a hard life. But these high cliffs are blown almost free of snow by the wind and by their very steepness, which means there are ledges nearly bare of snow where the goats can scratch out a living.

At least the goats stay warm all winter. Their long hair makes a great insulator, and if they can eat enough food, the bacteria in the gut actually keep the animal warm–much as a compost pile’s bacteria heat the whole heap.

Mountain Goat Kid on a Large Granite Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The Enchantments

Mountain Goat Kid Descending Boulder in The EnchantmentsIn the above sequence of three photographs, the kid walks atop a boulder, then descends a steep face of it  with confidence in its maturing abilities

Mountain Goat Kid Browsing Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsThe kid is a natural-born rock climber, able to cling to the nearly vertical side of a boulder while browsing the tasty needles of an Alpine Larch

Mother and child like to keep in eye contact with each other, much as humans do. When a pair lost contact with each other, both made soft bleeting sounds that helped them find each other. Frequently, the kid would wander just a bit too far from the mother, and would suddenly break into a run to get closer to her.

Mountain Goat Kid and Nanny Grazing in The EnchantmentsMother and child grazing just below our camp along the shores of Inspiration Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantmentsNanny Goat photographed while chewing or talking, or both

Mountain Goat Kid Grazing in The EnchantmentsKid grazing a meadow near an Alpine Larch shadow; note the stiff hairs that stand erect along the youngster’s back

Nanny goat wasn’t entirely motherly by human standards. If the little kid got too close while she was feeding, she would give it an aggressive thrust of her head and wickedly sharp horns, and the little kid would back off, seemingly with an expression of “What did I do wrong?” This behavior would serve the little guy well in the future, as there is a hierarchy of dominence among all the bands of goats, and everyone is more content if they know where they belong in the workplace pecking order.

Mountain Goats and Alpine Larch in The EnchantmentsNanny and kid alert to our activities

One morning a band of five female nannies and kids wandered down the mountain into our campsite, where they joined our regular two residents. I’m sure that the regulars and newcomers already knew each other quite well, but just to remind each other just who was the queen and who were the commoners, there was plenty of staring and glaring and thrusts of those deadly horns. Eventually the newcomers moved on, and our regular nanny retained the title of Queen of our Campsite.

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid Resting on Snowfield in The EnchantmNanny and kid contentedly chewing their cud while resting on a snow field above our camp

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The EnchantWhite hair beautifully backlit by the morning sun

Mountain Goat Nanny among Granite Boulders in The EnchantmentsBrown eyes and pink tongue

Mountain Goat Nanny Casting Shadow While Grazing in The EnchantmShadows

Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid along Perfection LakeMom and son at the edge of Perfection Lake

Mountain Goat Nanny Portrait in The EnchantmentsClose up and personal

By the way, I said at the beginning of this weblog that I would explain why the Mountain Goats camped with us for four days. I would love to say that it was because they enjoyed our companionship, or that they perceived that they were safer from Mountain Lions when they stayed near us. The truth is much more prosaic and much, much grosser.

You see, Mountain Goats love salt. They are addicted to salt. They dream of lapping the great salt lick in the sky. To them, humans are simply a mobile source of salt. I remember talking to a young female employee in Glacier National Park years ago when I worked for the National Park Service, and she described how Mountain Goats would walk up to her, when she was hiking in summer shorts, and lick the sweat off her bare thighs.

But wait, it gets worse. Mountain Goats have also come to associate people with another source of salt: human urine. Truth is, we all gotta pee, and the goats seek out the places we peed in order to lick the salty fluid from the granite or eat the soft soil saturated with golden liquid. That, and that alone, is the reason they hung around camp.

Each time one of us would quietly leave camp in order to relieve ourselves, the nanny would take notice and follow him or her to a secluded place. Then the rest of us would hear a shout as the horny creatures ventured too close. Karen taught the nanny the meaning of the word “NO!” by pointing her finger at the goat and loudly saying the word. Did you realize that Mountain Goats can learn English?

And on that note, I’ll just say that, whatever the reason we had the company of Mountain Goats, we sure enjoyed them. We enjoyed them even more when they were grazing sedges in the meadows, browsing larch needles, or chewing their cud while resting on a snow field–behaviors that seem seem more natural than following hikers to a private spot.

Mountain Goat and Alpine Larch in The Enchantments

Backlit Mountain Goat Grazing in Subalpine Meadow in The Enchant

The most readable account I’ve read about Mountain Goat behavior is A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed, by Douglas H. Chadwick

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my first blog about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent.

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

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUTUMN Part 1: The Long Ascent

November 25, 2012

Alpine Larches reflecting in Leprechaun Lake, with McClellan Peak distant

Reflections of larches on tranquil Leprechaun Lake

Karen and I set up camp by the light of our car headlights, as choking smoke shrouded Eight Mile Campground along Icicle Creek. Lightning had ignited forest fires in Washington State’s western Cascade Range near Wenatchee and Leavenworth; with the year’s dry summer and early fall, conditions were perfect for the fires to run with the wind–which they did. This would have been a good place for a face mask; instead, we coughed the night away.

Our purpose in coming to Icicle Creek was not to car camp–if we had come for that, we would have fled the next morning to fresh horizons with clear air. No, we were here for a seven day backpacking trip into a promised land called The Enchantments. We had won a permit in the yearly lottery for access to The Enchantments, and we were not about to give it up, smoke or no smoke. We planned to meet three other hikers the next morning.

There are two major access routes into The Enchantments: from Aasgard Pass and from Snow Lakes. Unfortunately, the Aasgard Pass route was closed by the U.S. Forest Service, because the Cashmere Mountain Fire had scorched through the forest above the access trail, leaving steep slopes bare and subject to tumbling boulders and falling trees. Our original plan had been to hike in via the Aasgard Pass route and out via the Snow Lakes route, leaving a car at the Snow Lakes trailhead to shuttle us back to the second car. But with the closed trail, our only choice was to go in and out by the Snow Lakes route. That worked for us, and leaves us in anticipation of the even steeper Aasgard route on a future hike.

The next morning, much of the smoke had dissipated, and we went into Leavenworth for breakfast, then back along Icicle Creek road to the trailhead. There we met our hiking companions, and did the last-minute packing for the hike. We are all photographers, so our gear added up to quite a bit of weight, with cameras, lenses, and tripods. Adding the weight of a week’s worth of food, and we all felt like Grand Canyon pack mules. My gear weighted 57 lbs.–enough to make me wish I had been doing weight training.

This is not a trail for wimps. It goes up and up and up, relentlessly for 6,000 vertical feet of gain over about ten miles. There may have been a time in my distant past when I could easily do 6,000 feet in a day, but not any more, and we planned to do the ten miles over two days.

That said, there is a hardy breed of northwestern hikers who do The Enchantments as a day hike, starting at say 3:00 a.m. and going in by headlamp, hiking the beautiful high country in the middle of the day, and then heading down to the second trailhead in the dark. This is unofficially known as the Death March, though it is also called the Enchantments Traverse. Its popularity is partly because it is a really macho hike to brag about, with over 20 miles of steep trails and the huge elevation gain and loss, and partly because a lottery overnight permit is not needed by someone day hiking the whole route. The Death March would kill me in two ways: the physical way, as well as the awful realization that my photography would necessarily be limited to a few snapshops along the way. Though I guess I could strap a GoPro camera to my head and take pictures automatically every half-second of the hike and of everything I turned my head to look at.

Our group included Karen, my partner (to use the preferred PC Seattle term for “wife” or other similarly close or ambiguous relationships), as well as the youngsters with us known as Heidi, Jeremy, and Ed. At the trailhead we discussed the hike and the fires with the wilderness ranger, who arrived as we did our final packing. He also wrote a parking ticket for a car without a proper permit, and later we would see him exiting the wilderness, sick as a dog, then several days later reentering the high country to do his patrol work.

At the trailhead, we also talked with a couple whose car looked like it had been hit by a meteorite, with a smashed front end, hood, and windshield, asking them about what happened to it. They said that while crossing part of Wyoming, they had hit a Moose that suddenly wandered onto the road in the dark. The car hit the Moose dead on, and the Moose went up on the hood and off to one side. It apparently gathered itself up, shook itself off, then walked on, dignity intact. Karen said they should put a sign on the car saying “The Moose Won!”  The car’s front end was being temporarily held together with rope, and the radiator looked like some vital organ that was stuffed back in the body after a knife attack. I shouldda snapped a picture …

Finally done chatting and packing, we shouldered our dead weight and ambled down the trail. We crossed Icicle Creek, then quickly started ascending switchbacks through a conifer forest. Up we hiked, entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness–the huge wilderness area that includes The Enchantments. We stopped to photograph a Douglas Squirrel munching a Douglas Fir cone near trailside Douglas Maples (sometimes not much imagination is used in naming stuff!).

Douglas Squirrel feeding on Douglas Fir cone

Autumn colors along the trail, with the rock climbers’ destination known as Snow Creek Wall towering above

We passed a huge cliff face known as the Snow Creek Wall. We hadn’t heard of it, but apparently it is on some bucket list of 50 best climbs in the world, so there are often climbers dangling off the granite wall. In fact, collison-with-Moose-man was on his way to climb this wall, and not much deters a climber from his targeted climb. We could see climbers on the wall, tiny against the vertical granite, and we could see the tracery of their ropes.

The trail passed through an old burn, with snags of Western White Pines and other conifers standing starkly against the slightly smoky sky. There were open boulder fields, where thousands of years’ worth of tumbling boulders had met their angle of repose. This is steep country, and there were places where a tall pine would be growing up through a boulder field. Such pines inevitably had bark and wood that was smashed to splinters on the uphill side of the tree, where a boulder or two had tumbled down slope and collided with the tree trunk, leaving the tree looking much the worse for wear, but still alive. At least trees have the strength to resist most boulders–not so, flesh and blood. It was a warning to keep our senses alive in the wilderness.

This forest burns frequently, leaving a patchwork of healthy green trees and fire-scorched snags

After a morning of hiking, we stopped for lunch along raging Snow Creek. With the several month absense of rain in these mountains, we couldn’t understand how a creek could be flooding its banks and scouring the roots of trees along its path. There wasn’t even supposed to be much snow left in the mountains, and the glaciers have almost disappeared. We wouldn’t know the answer until the next day.

Snow Creek raging through the forest at the place we chose to have our first trail lunch

For Karen and I, lunch consisted of our regular trail food: crackers and cheese, almonds, dried Michigan cherries, and Canadian maple creme cookies. Two of our group had hot lunches; using their Jetboil equipment, they were able to quickly cook a hot meal. Jetboils use Isobutane-propane canisters and can boil a full container of water in a couple of minutes. There are days in this high country when a hot lunch would help keep a hiker warm, but it was unseasonably warm on this autumn day so we weren’t cold.

After lunch and a short rest, we struggled into our pack straps and again started the long grunt up the trail. We met several groups coming down, and they said it had been really smoky from the forest fires. They said we would probably have The Enchantments much to ourselves, since most of the hikers were leaving. That proved to be true. When we picked up our permit, it seemed that few other hikers had claimed the permits for which they had successfully won the lottery and paid a fee. The Seattle television horror stories about the fires and the limited access to The Enchantments had scared away most of the backpackers. All the better for us!

Bridge spanning Snow Creek in the forest of our ascent

The rest of the day was tiring, but eventually we reached our destination, Nada Lake. Which of course brought up an impromptu Abbott and Costello-style routine.

“Where are we camping tonight?”

“Nada Lake.”

“Not a lake? I thought we were staying at a lake?”

“We are: Nada Lake”

“We’re not at a lake?”

“No. Nada Lake.”

“What?”

And so on, until I collapsed in giggles as if I was eleven years old all over again.

We set up camp on both sides of the trail, with four tents for five people (my partner and I shared a tent, but nobody else wanted to be partners). It was just a few steps to the lake shore of Nada Lake, and we filtered water while sitting on a granite slab sloping into the lake. Tall peaks reflected on the still surface of Nada. Our dinner consisted of a Backpacker’s Pantry meal, in which we simply poured boiling water into a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai, stirred, then waited about 20 minutes for the meal to rehydrate. These meals are amazingly good–far better than our standard Lipton fake beef stroganoff (made with lumps of gas-giving TVP) back in the 1970s, when we started backpacking. Now, we buy Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals when they’re on sale at REI or elsewhere.

We were beat from the hike, so we went to bed soon after dark, our headlamps slicing the darkness as we went about our preparations for bed. I brought my hiking book, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I usually read for only a few minutes before sleep during a backpacking trip, so the first time I read the book it took me 20 years. Really. Now I’m starting it again and hoping that I can backpack long enough to finish it a second time. This book is about a journey of Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller to try and observe the Snow Leopard (and the more common Blue Sheep) in the Himalayas. It reads like a book of zen discovery of the moment, and although Matthiessen never sees a Snow Leopard throughout the course of the book, it doesn’t matter either to the author or the reader. This is one of the truly great nature and zen books, and I especially enjoy it when I am on my own search for photographs and meaning and perhaps a Cougar along a wilderness trail (I have yet to see one, but it is the search that counts).

The next morning, we awoke early and started breakfast. A couple coming down the trail had gotten an early start, and they said there were two Mountain Goats just around the bend in the trail from camp. And so there were. A nanny and kid, sauntered into camp as if they owned the place. The nanny investigated the edges of our campsite, while the kid promptly ascended big boulders just behind camp.

A Mountain Goat entered camp while we were taking down our tents, leading to an hour-long photographic distraction

The Mountain Goats were not afraid of us–they’ve seen thousands of backpackers coming up this trail and they undoubtedly prefer us to Cougars

Truth be told, the big reason that Mountain Goats like to hang around human campsites is to consume urine-soaked soil that backpackers leave behind–more on this in part 2 of this blog

When you get a pair of Mountain Goats coming into a camp full of photographers, the cameras come out and the photographers start clicking off hundreds of exposures. We got caught up in the moment, which stretched into at least an hour as we photographed. The highlight was seeing mother and child goat come down to drink from Nada Lake in beautiful light.

Mountain Goat drinking from tranquil Nada Lake in morning light

We did our final morning packing, then started up the trail. As we approached Snow Lakes, we heard a thunderous roar from Snow Creek. Drawing closer, we saw a huge jet of water coming hard and fast from the area of the lakes. Then it dawned on us that this was the source of torrential Snow Creek that we had experienced yesterday. Each autumn, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes enormous quantities of water from Upper Snow Lake in order to provide sufficient water to the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery in the valley below. The fish hatchery’s mission is raising Chinook Salmon, which are important to the region’s Indians and sport fisherman. The loss of water from Snow Lakes is necessary and required in order to accomplish the mission of the hatchery. It is an unfortunate tradeoff in terms of the wilderness experience, but I can understand the reasoning.

Torrent of water removed from Snow Lakes to supply the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in autumn

Our route led across a dam between Lower and Upper Snow Lake. Near the dam, we encountered a group of five Mountain Goats, including two kids whose white coats looked like they had been playing down and dirty in the mud along the lakeshore. What’s the matter with kids today?!

Upper Snow Lake looked like it had lost 90% of its water to the fish hatchery, and consisted of steep, bare, terraced banks of raw soil sloping down to the bit of water that was left. It was SO UGLY that I’m glad we decided not to camp there. We hiked the mile to the upper end of the lake as quickly as possible.

Upper Snow Lake is among the ugliest lakes I’ve ever seen, at least in autumn when much of the water is removed for use in a fish hatchery

Then we started the ascent into the real high country. The forest started opening up a bit more, and eventually the first Alpine Larches appeared in all their golden glory. Oh, did I mention that the reason we and every other hiker in Washington want to go to The Enchantments in autumn is simply to see the Alpine Larches at their peak of color? No? Well, it is. We timed our lottery dates to coincide with the peak color, or so we hoped.

As we climbed higher, we hiked over broad expanses of bare granite, sometimes giving each other an assist over a ledge or boulder. It often turned into more of a scramble than a trail, but fortunately it wasn’t icy–sometimes autumn trips into The Enchantments can be icy and snowy. Although these elements can add interest for photographers, they can be treacherous.

Karen crossing an expanse of smooth granite, where trail builders used dynamite to blast small steps in the stone

My left foot hurt! While jogging several weeks previously, I tripped over a sisal door mat (don’t ask!) during a four mile route and fell hard, sprawled on the ground. That night, I got up from my Lazy Boy and almost fell over from the sudden intense pain. It turned out to be Plantar faciitis, an inflammation of the back bottom of the foot. Hiking with the pain was a necessary side effect of getting into The Enchantments, but I did stretching exercises each day–some of them suggested by a woman we talked to at the trailhead who had dealt with Plantar several years before. When we stopped for lunch, I immersed my bandaged foot (protected by a plastic bag) in the icy waters of Snow Creek, and it immediately felt better.

Snow Creek rushing down the granite toward Snow Lakes; this is the spot where we enjoyed lunch on our second day out

After a long lunch break, we began the final ascent to the high country. Eventually, we came over a lip of the granite and were at Lake Viviane, the first of the storied Enchantment Lakes. We photographed the lake and its larches and the towering mountain known as The Temple, with sharp Prusik Peak at one end. It was all so stunning, especially after the two days of grunting and trudging up ten miles of steep trail through dense forest.

From Lake Viviane, we got our first great view of Prusik Peak and The Tower–some of the iconic mountains surrounding the Enchantment Lakes

We could hardly tear ourselves away from Lake Viviane, but we realized that the day was getting a little long in the tooth and we had a mile to go before we could sleep. We hiked over a granite ridge between Lake Viviane and Leprechaun Lake, and were surprised to see a granite slope so treacherous in bad weather that trail makers had put a series of rebar “staples” in the granite so that people could walk without slipping away. Our day was dry, so it was no problem.

Fallen Alpine Larch needles forming a pattern at the edge of Lake Viviane

When we reached Leprechaun Lake, the lighting was so stunning that we all immediately dropped our packs and began photographing with complete focus. The Alpine Larches glowed bright yellow-gold against the smoky blue of the mountains behind. It was some of the most beautiful light I’ve seen in Washington’s mountains.

Our first view of the granite and golden larches surrounding Leprechaun Lake

Late afternoon light on Alpine Larches, reflecting in Leprechaun Lake

Ripples on Leprechaun Lake, colored by reflected deep blue tree shadows, orange reflections of Alpine Larches, and an aquamarine slice of sunlit lake

Eventually the light faded, and we followed the trail toward the place where we wished to camp, Perfection Lake. By that point, I was really tired and ready to be there. Other members of the group went on ahead and found the Perfect Campsite by Perfection Lake, and we set up camp in the fading light. It was getting chilly, but a hot meal revived us. After that, I had half a chocolate bar and felt energetic enough that I was able to prance around in the darkness for nearly an hour taking night pictures of the lake, the stars, and the larches under a full moon. It was a magical time.

Last light on Prusik Peak, the iconic mountain in The Enchantments

Behind our campsite, larches and a boulder field lit by a rising moon, with stars studding the sky overhead

The rising moon reflecting on the wind-rippled surface of Perfection Lake

I used a headlamp to illuminate the Alpine Larches in the foreground, and moonlight lit the granite of Little Annapurna and other peaks in the distance; if the photo here was shown larger, you would see a lot of stars in the sky

Wispy clouds and stars above our campsite

Looking down the length of Perfection Lake toward Little Annapurna on a moonlit night

After that, I read a page or two of The Snow Leopard and drifted off to sleep, shrouded in a cloud of warm down.

You’ll have to wait for the second installment to see what greeted us when we crawled out of bed on the third morning of the hike.

For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov.

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