Archive for the ‘reptile’ category

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

June 18, 2013

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

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

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

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

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

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

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

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

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

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NEBRASKA SANDHILLS: Loving the Great Plains

June 27, 2012

Colt following its mother in the Nebraska Sandhills

I’ll get the embarrassing stuff out of the way first: I got my vehicle stuck in the sand of Nebraska’s Sandhills. I was heading back on a 28 mile paved one lane road (paved so the tourists don’t get stuck!) that was about ten feet wide; after a particularly rewarding stretch of birding and photography, I decided to return to see if I could get any other photographs. Near a cattle guard I swung the van wide right off the pavement and then proceeded to take a wide U-turn. The sand on the other side of the road was softer than I expected, and the van’s rear wheels began spinning, cutting deeper into the sand like a chain saw. Within seconds, the van was resting on its transmission and the back wheels were spinning freely.  At this point, with my hands on my hips and any hint of a smile vanished from my face, I stared at my predicament. I wasn’t going to get out by myself with the equipment I had, yet it was 25 miles back to the main road and cell phone reception.

The thin ribbon of pavement leading out through the Sandhills; is it paved so that the tourists don’t get stuck in the sand?

My van, stuck in sand beside the paved one-lane road to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Here the van was resting on its transmission with the wheels spinning freely … I guess I should have gotten a 4WD van!

This is about as lonely as a road gets, but within a minute or so, I saw a truck towing a horse trailer approaching. As it drew next to me and slowed, I looked up at the driver and was surprised to see a cute teenage cowgirl, blond hair in a pony tail flowing out from behind a baseball cap. I immediately thought of the old “Take it Easy” Eagles’ song lyric:

“It’s a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me …”

Well, not at me, but at my predicament. I told her the obvious, that I was stuck, and asked if she had a way to pull me out.

“Sure.”  she said, “But I have to take care of something first; I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate your help,” and watched as she drove away. Then I spent the next half hour on hands and knees digging out as much sand from in front of the rear wheels as I could, not that it helped all that much, but it gave me something to do while waiting.

Then I heard the distant drone of a motor across the sandhills, and watched the flat-bed Ford and horse trailer returning. This time the girl brought her dad with her, and he matter-of-factly hooked a heavy tow chain to my rig and I was out in a couple of minutes. He looked like a rugged and handsome 40-something rancher from Central Casting, with a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a blue western shirt, deeply tanned with thin wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. I shook his hand and thanked him and his daughter for their help, and I was back on my way–albeit with his friendly admonition to stay on the paved road!

Back on the road again, crossing a cattle guard with a cactus sticking out of it

Western boundary of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 25 miles along this sand road to the nearest hamlet

The lonely landscape

The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a place apart, dotted with lonely ranch houses that might be a dozen miles from the nearest neighbor. When meeting a pickup virtually anywhere in the Sandhills, the driver will almost always wave. This happens only in the REALLY rural, sparsely populated parts of America.

The grass-covered sand dunes of the Sandhills

When this region was first settled in a land rush just after the turn of the last century, the new owners got 640 acres of government land under the Kinkaid Act passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, and set about to raise crops and dairy cattle. Earlier, settlers had gotten 160 acres of land, but that proved to be too little to make a living on, or even to starve decently, so the 640 acres was a better deal. But this is a harsh land, and the story of ranching and farming here has been one of farm failure, followed by gradual consolidation into large ranches.

Two-track road winding over the dunes in the Nebraska National Forest

I’ve loved this region since I first saw it some 20 years ago. It is truly big sky country, with wave after wave of sand dunes stretching far, far beyond what the eye can see. These are not dunes in the sense of barren and blowing beach dunes; these are dunes covered with grasses that wave in the constant winds. The sand dunes are no longer active, since the region gets enough rain now for the dunes to support the grasses that stabilize the sand. The exception is where wind undermines the grass cover on the dunes in a “blowout;” this has happened consistently enough through the eons that one endangered wildflower–the Blowout Penstemon–is actually adapted to colonizing and stabilizing these blowouts.

I rescued this Ornate Box Turtle from the middle of the road, after I took his picture

The Ornate Box Turtle has a hinged lower shell in front, which it draws up to shield its face from intruders; this was one of the few pictures I took after he finally decided I was not much of an adversary and went strolling away

Western Meadowlark viewing its territory from atop a wooden fencepost

Prairie Rose in bloom

Western Spiderwort brightening the landscape with blossoms that seem to reflect the vast blue sky

Winds are constant in this open land. Ranchers catch the winds with old-fashioned windmills, which pump water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer up to tanks for watering cattle. Many of these windmills have seen service for many decades, and the Great Plains would look even emptier without them. The landscape is wonderful for raising cattle, horses, and wildlife–all of which take advantage of the open tanks of water below each windmill.

Windmill pumping water for cattle in the Nebraska Sandhills

Each windmill pumps water, as long as the wind is blowing, into a stock tank; birds and other wildlife also take advantage of the good source of water

Patience is a virtue when waiting for bulls and calves to leave the road

The Ogallala Aquifer is Nebraska’s most precious natural resource, other than the future potential of wind. The aquifer is the reason that the Nebraska Sandhills made the national news for the first time in my memory. A Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., proposed to route the big Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Sandhills, which would bring black gold from Alberta tar sands down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. When President Obama announced a delay in approval of the pipeline in November 2011, a lot of Americans howled in protest, convinced that the delay was a political move, but not the conservative ranchers of the Sandhills. They know that their livelihood depends upon the health of the Ogallala Aquifer running below these old sand dunes, and that a serious oil spill could ruin the clear liquid gold that lies below the sand. These ranchers vociferously protested the proposed route of the pipeline, and I suspect that they will eventually win in the battle to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills.

Prairie pothole and dramatic cirrus clouds

One area of the Sandhills is dotted by prairie pothole lakes; here the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for ducks and wading birds, as well as songbirds and other wildlife. During my brief visit, I glassed a flock of American White Pelicans; huge birds that were resting on an island in the middle of a small lake. Near them, at a few feet higher in elevation than the pelicans, was a colony of nesting Double-Crested Cormorants. My favorite bird of the refuge was the Long-Billed Curlew, a large wading bird with an impossibly long and slender curved bell. Pairs of curlews were flying wildly above, frantically calling with the urgency of breeding. What an exuberant display of summer life on the prairie!

Prairie pothole lakes dot the landscape in the vicinity of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Upland Sandpiper nervously watching me

Long-billed Curlew opening its impossibly long and curved bill

Juvenile American Avocet foraging among flies along the edge of a prairie pothole

The other sound that I associate with the Great Plains is the call of the meadowlark. The first time I drove across the country, now over 40 years ago, I was on the way from my Michigan home to fight forest fires in the California mountains. I had just read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, about his journey to rediscover America by traveling the back roads. I did some of the same on my trip, and I recall driving through Kansas with the windows open on a hot spring day–this was before air conditioning isolated most of us from the sounds of the outside world–and hearing the constant melodies of meadowlarks perched on fenceposts and telephone poles. I’ll always associate the prairie with that experience.

Western Meadowlark bursting into song

When I first visited the sandhills back in the mid-1990s, I photographed an old gas pump in front of an abandoned building, where an old steel advertising sign faded in the prairie sunlight. On this return trip, I discovered that the pump and old sign have since been removed, presumably by antique collectors, leaving just a sad old building in a row of sad old buildings. In fact, this town of Whitman is trending toward an agricultural ghost town as the Great Plains depopulate.

I photographed the Jewel Diner in Mullen back in the 1990s; there is now just a concrete slab where the diner once stood

When I photographed this building in the 1990s, there was a classic old gas pump and two old metal signs; these are now gone 

Old and abandoned buildings in Whitman, as the village slides toward being an agricultural ghost town during my 2012 visit

Old false-front building in Whitman in 2012

In the nearby village of Mullen, I photographed the Jewel Diner years ago. This abandoned diner was in the classic old tradition of 1930s era art-deco diners, but it was tiny and cute as can be. I remember being thrilled to see and photograph it. Since then, the diner was removed and installed in a steel barn owned by a private collector. Here is what I said about the Jewel Diner after first encountering it a decade-and-a-half ago:

“Just before photographing this ghost of an old diner, I stopped for lunch at a small town restaurant just down the road. After seeing what other patrons were eating, I ordered the local specialty — a dinner plate-sized (really!) slab of breaded and fried pork served with mayo on a huge bun. We’re not going to talk about my cholesterol level right now, thank you.

After rolling out the door and down the road, I immediately stopped to photograph this jewel of a diner. With the art deco details, it would have been the most modern building in this Nebraskan sandhills town back in the late 1940s. When I took the photograph in 1999, the Jewel Diner had sat there closed and empty, probably for several decades.

At an art show in Cincinnati, one woman was thrilled to see this photograph. She told me that she was raised in Mullen and frequently ate at the Jewel Diner all those years ago. Recently she returned to the town and found that the diner had been moved–apparently to restart its career serving up chicken-fried steaks and home fries.” 

I camped one night in the Nebraska National Forest–yes, you heard that right, the Nebraska National Forest. To anyone who has driven the endless miles on Interstate 80 across this prairie state, the notion of a national forest here sounds silly. This is an unusual national forest, however, one that started in the dreams of a University of Nebraska botanist named Dr. Charles E. Bessey. He thought that with the rainfall in the Sandhills, there was enough moisture to support trees. He convinced Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that his idea was sound, and they convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to support the idea. So in the first decade of the 20th century, a small army of planters planted trees in the grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills. These 25,000 acres of trees became the Nebraska National Forest in 1908.

A segment of the sandy Circle Road leading through the hand-planted trees of the Bessey Ranger District in the Nebraska National Forest

Pine forest along the Circle Road

Junipers scattered at the edge of the national forest

The Scott Lookout Tower, built in 1944, still operates as a fire tower in this land of dangerous range wildfires

Bottlebrush Squirreltail Grasses wave in the wind in the moist landscape around a windmill

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery grows tree seedlings and other plants for reforestation efforts; it is over a century old, having been established during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt

Prickly Poppy looks like an unlikely cross between a thistle and a poppy

Though the Nebraska National Forest never became the supplier of fenceposts and timber than Dr. Bessey had imagined, it is still an iconic and fascinating part of the Great Plains. There is even a fire tower where visitors can climb and look out over the entire expanse of this unit of the forest.

Circle Road leading up and down and around the Sandhills

There is a loop road through the forest, which I decided to drive in my van. I soon discovered that roads through the Sandhills are made of … sand, so they make for interesting driving in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Where I entered the 20+ mile road, there was no sign stating that it was for four-wheel drive vehicles, so I decided to try it. I found that it was awfully iffy going up the sandy dunes in my vehicle, but as long as I kept up my momentum, I was all right. So, I probably crested 150 hills by gunning the engine and maintaining momentum. It was a relief when I finally got to the other end of the loop road and back on gravel–and at that end of the road there was a sign saying “four-wheel drive only.” This was the day before my adventure getting stuck in the Sandhills, so I guess it gave me a false confidence.

To many coastal Americans, this is flyover country, but I just love exploring these remote places

I left the Sandhills late in the day after getting freed from the sand. When I drove into the town of Alliance, I found roads everywhere in the town blocked by police, and it was hard to get through the town to the freeway. Later, I checked the news and found that a man was barricaded inside a pharmacy with an assault rifle and other weapons. He had shot and wounded two police officers and the pharmacy owner (who was a hostage until he made a daring escape) during a botched robbery attempt, and was under suspicion for a murder in a trailer park nearby. He was later found dead after the swat team went in that evening. I was reminded of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s dark song about a murdering rampage across the prairie fittingly called “Nebraska,” in which Springsteen voices the murderer:

“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”

Yes, there is. But there is also the kindness I found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Thank you, unknown rancher and rancher’s daughter. for helping a stranger in a strange land. And make sure the water below the surface stays clear and clean forever.

Colt nursing in this wide-open and beautiful land, which I think of as the gateway to the American West

For more information about the Nebraska Sandhills, go to the following sources:

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Nebraska National Forest

Keystone XL Pipeline (if you Google this, you will find arguments on all sides of the pipeline issue)

Nebraska Sandhills

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

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

DIAMOND CRATERS: Visions of Hell Quenched

May 16, 2009

 

 

Great Horned Owl at Diamond CratersGreat Horned Owl in Lava Pit Crater

 

 

A time traveler here could see red magma flowing out of deep vents and volcanic bombs tossed through the air as a huge blast forms deep craters.  A version of hell or a terrible war zone.  This is Diamond Craters, a place unexpected in the remoteLava Pit Crater within Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area desert.  Karen and I visited Diamond Craters in late April 2009, in conjunction with our trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which I described in another recent post:  Malheur in April.

 

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to Malheur.  One of the wonderful aspects of the experience here is that we can explore on our own; there is a volcanic cinder road and a few short (but poorly marked) trails.  Other than that, we are free to tramp around the craters and cut our boots on jagged lava and watch for rattlesnakes and enjoy the vast blue desert sky.

 

I’ve been here several times over the years, and the first time was terrific, when I climbed down into Lava Pit Crater and observed a family of Great Horned Owls with three nearly mature young.  Karen and I decided this time that we could try and see if the owls still nested there.  While glassing the sheer walls of the crater from the rim, I spotted a mature Great Horned Owl perched on a ledge along the vertical wall.  We decided at that point that we would make a careful descent into the heart of the crater.

 

Lava Pit Crater is not large or deep, but the path down is tricky.  The first time I climbed down it, about 15 years ago, I fell and conked my long lens against a boulder.  My body is getting more fragile as I age, so I have to be more careful now (he says while nursing an ankle sprained while jogging!).  We took our time on this hike, and made it to the bottom without incident.  The broken volcanic rock is unstable underfoot, making a clanking sound when rock hits rock.

 

Inside the crater, we found the nest, which wasn’t too difficult; we just looked for the places with a lot of “whitewash.”  One adult was sitting on the nest, and eventuallyGreat Horned Owl on nest in Diamond Craters we saw a youngster sticking its fuzzy white head out from beneath the mother.  The nestling was too young to hold its head up for long, and it repeatedly wriggled under its parent’s body for shelter and warmth.

 

We spent the rest of the day investigating the craters and scattered wildflowers of Diamond Craters.  We especially enjoyed the sight of Malheur Maar, which is a crater resulting from a volcanic explosion that later filled with water.  The small desert lake has held water for about 7,000 years, according to scientists, and was home to Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots during our visit.  Its deep sediments have botanical clues to the climate of the geologically recent past.

 

Malheur Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural AreaMalheur Maar is an explosive volcanic crater now filled with water; the tiny, geologically important lake is home to waterfowl and marsh birds

 

The BLM has an outstanding brochure, available online, called the Diamond Craters Tour Brochure that interprets the geological formations of Diamond Craters.  I found this brochure to be among the most informative interpretive guides I’ve ever read; it is endlessly informative and doesn’t “dumb it down” for the general public.  The brochure says that the volcanic activity at Diamond Craters is relatively recent at under 25,000 years.  The hot springs in the region, including the one below Steens Mountain that is such a great place to soak on a cold day, show that geothermal activity is alive and well nearby.

 

Side-blotched Lizard PortraitSide-blotched Lizard in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

 

 

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff

 

 

East Twin Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion

 

 

Western Juniper stands alone in the prairieA Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex

 

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit jawbonesJackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl

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

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

 

June 1, 2008 On Edge on the East Side

November 28, 2008


2008_wa_3790wp

Spring in the Seattle area alternates between dark, rainy days and bright, sunny ones.  When a spell of bad weather descends, we enjoy hiking and camping on the east side of the Cascade Range, where the skies are usually sunny.  On this trip we headed east, leaving behind a wall of ominous skies at Snoqualmie Pass.  There were three of us: my wife Karen, our friend Sue, and me.

Our goal on this trip was to explore Black Canyon and Bear Canyon in the general area of the Tieton River Canyon, which features dark basalt formations in hexagonal columns, and open Ponderosa Pine and Big Sagebrush landscapes.  Most of this area lies within Wenatchee National Forest and the Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area, though there is also some private land.  The Nature Conservancy has played a key role in buying and preserving this extraordinary landscape.  And it is beautiful in spring to the eyes of a sun-starved Washington mossback.

2008_wa_3808wp

This region is known for ticks, so we took the dorky-looking precaution of tucking our light-colored long pants inside our white socks.  Then some of us also sprayed with a DEET-based repellent.  It seemed to work, since we didn’t pick up any ticks all weekend.  Plus we applied sunscreen and wore hats so that our fishbelly-white Western Washington bodies wouldn’t be damaged by the glaring sun.  But there were other hazards …

After the long drive, when we first emerged from the car to look at some Bitterroot flowers (genus Lewisia, named for the discoverer, Meriwether Lewis), Sue spotted a snake looking limp and dead on the basalt.  But it wasn’t dead, only cold.  We prodded it awake with a stick and saw the rattles as it slithered into a hole between the rocks: it was a Western Rattlesnake!  This discovery reminded us to remain vigilant.

Our first hike was into Black Canyon.  The trail lead steadily upward, leading past Trembling Aspen groves and an old settler’s cabin. The cabin was in a pretty setting near a stream, and we could 2008_wa_3844wpimagine the sounds of horses and cows and chickens and children in the clearing a hundred years ago.  The aspens wore evidence of more recent visits.  The bark on every tree was covered with marks from the ground to roughly head high.  But this graffitti wasn’t made by vandals or lonely shephards:  2008_wa_3836wpit was made by Elk using their teeth to scrape deep into the bark to get nutients and sugar from the bark’s inner layers.  The marks then last for as long as the tree.  On the trail itself we saw a scent post used by a Coyote.  This is a spot along the trail where a Coyote or Coyotes had deposited scat over time, one layer after another.  Interesting stuff, that poop.  

The trail led higher, through scattered Ponderosa Pines and hillsides covered with sagebrush and scattered late wildflowers.  While walking along the edge of the trail, Karen was startled by a dry rattle within a few feet of her boots.  It was another rattlesnake, this one coiled and ready for battle with the towering intruders.  At first it rattled almost continuously, but by the time I got there it had quieted down, deciding that Karen wasn’t such a big threat, after all.  I photographed the rattlesnake, the thought briefly crossing my mind that I would like to reach down and remove a blade of grass in front of its face.  I thought better of it, and decided that Photoshop would be a safer way to cut away the grass.  It struck us how well the rattlesnake’s skin blended in with the natural brown and subtle green tones of the landscape.  If the snake hadn’t rattled, we would have never known it was there until …

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Higher still, we came into open hills, where we examined wildflowers and covered up, because the sky had darkened and big drops of rain sputtered down.  At that point we decided to head back down, and drive back to our campsite at the Wenas Campground near Naches.  By the way, this is a terrific campground that is also known variously as the Boise-Cascade Campground and the Audubon Campground (there is a yearly spring gathering for birdwatchers here).  BYOW (bring your own water) and be prepared to share the campground with ORV users, but the Ponderosa Pine grove here is gorgeous.

The next morning, we packed up our gear and drove to the Bear Canyon trailhead.  The trailhead showed promise, with towering Ponderosa Pines framing basalt cliffs.  This was a beautiful place, and we learned from another hiker that the Nature Conservancy had preserved this canyon.  That hiker 2008_wa_3780wplater asked if we had seen the scratches at about eye level on a tree along the trail.  I had seen the marks, but the source didn’t register until he mentioned that the scratches had been made by a cat–specifically the big cat known variously as Cougar and Mountain Lion.  And the scratches were fresh, as if the Cougar had come through just before us.  This was a reminder, if another was needed, to be wary and alert in this back country.  Unfortunately, we never saw the Cougar, but just knowing it was in that canyon added a whole new dimension to the hike.

 

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To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

June 12, 2008 Prehistoric Moments with a Living Fossil

June 14, 2008

 

There are sights that take you back millions of years in a moment.  Today I was looking for photographs along a trail to Willow Falls in Willow River State Park near Hudson, Wisconsin.  When I walked around a bend, I saw a huge turtle in the trail.  I had not seen a Snapping Turtle so big since I worked at Beaver Lake Nature Center in upstate New York, and this was a monster.  The shell would have measured about a foot long, had I dared to lay a ruler along its back.  I didn’t, because these turtles have much quicker reflexes than you might think, and their bite is reputed to be able to remove a finger.  I’d rather not find out the hard way!  Female Snapping Turtles emerge from slow rivers and lakes in June to lay their eggs.  Cumbersome on land, a snapper lumbers along with difficulty until it finds just the right soft patch of earth to dig a hole for the eggs, which are roughly the size, shape, and color of ping pong balls.  The tail is about as long as the shell, and has big plates reminiscent of the Stegosaurus dinosaur.  The head is massive, and has patterns that probably act as underwater camouflage.   The claws are long and sharp–reminding me of bear claws–and are used for digging.

Fear necessitated longer lenses, so I photographed with a 100 mm macro lens (perhaps a bit too short for safety), a 24-105 mm zoom, and a 70-200 mm zoom with an extension tube to allow closer focusing.  This turtle stayed in one spot for nearly an hour, but then started moving up the trail, which gave me opportunities to photograph it in different light and with varied backgrounds.  I took a few pictures from above, to record the human perspective, but my most evocative pictures are those where I laid down on the ground, viewing the creature’s face from eye level.  I’m still dirty from head to toe as a result, but the photographs are good.  

There is one rule of wildlife photography that even a rule-breaker like me feels obliged to obey, and that is to get the creature’s eye in sharp focus, whether it is a reptile, mammal, bird, or insect.  Humans and many other species look at eyes as windows on the soul of intent (remember when President Bush looked into the eyes of Russian President Putin and proclaimed that “I looked the man in the eye … I was able to get a sense of his soul”), so a view of the eyes is crucial to our perceived relationship to another individual or an animal.  Turtle shells, mammal hair, bird feathers, and other details can be out of focus, but the photographer had better remember to get those eyes as sharp as possible!

A young family with four children came up to me while I was photographing; I explained what the Snapping Turtle was doing and suggested that they could safely walk around it at a distance of about five feet.  One little boy, perhaps seven years old, had big and fearful eyes.  He wouldn’t walk past the turtle until I and his Dad escorted him safely past.  He will remember that moment, and how his older brother said the turtle looked like a dinosaur.  The family had just seen another wonderful sight–a deer wading in the river, its summer coat beautifully lit by the low sun, eating water plants.  What a wonderful and evocative hike for these children!  [Please, parents, spend a great deal of quality time outdoors with your children and it will pay them back with a lifetime of love for their world].

I encountered a second Snapping Turtle as big as the first along the same trail.  It had just emerged from the river and was still glistening wet; it even still had a bloodsucker clinging to its shell.  There was a water weed draped over the shell that I knew would be unsightly in a photograph, so I approached the turtle from behind and pulled the weed off.  This turtle instantly reacted, turning around and lunging at my hand.  Fortunately I was quicker.  This turtle would not stand still for a portrait, so I grabbed a few shots before it galloped away (if you can imagine a big turtle galloping!) and splashed into the wetland pond across the trail.

Other prehistoric moments along the trail included hearing Gray Treefrogs warbling like birds in the trees and shrubs all around me–perhaps half-a-dozen at once.  And Bullfrogs rumbling with resonant tones.  And Green Frogs with their calls that naturalists describe as being like “plucked banjo strings.”  A Painted Turtle sunned its chilled body on a log.  A Great Egret waded patiently in the river shallows.  These species have all survived millions upon millions of years in strings of slow and endless evolution.  

Earlier in the day, I passed through some low hills in Wisconsin that have been mined for iron ore.  These remnant mountains and their ore deposits are said to be 2.5 billion years old–talk about a prehistoric moment!  But nothing brought home a link to the distant past as seeing that living fossil–the Snapping Turtle.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

FIRE ANTS: Getting Up Close and Personal

May 8, 2008

While driving part of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi on April 19, I spotted a box turtle crossing the road.  Since I didn’t have any photographs of this species, I drove on a few miles to find a safe place to turn around, then went back.  The turtle was still crossing the road.  So I helped out the slowpoke by lifting the turtle up and moving it to the road’s shoulder, for which the reptile thanked me with a hiss.  Then I proceeded to make a nuisance of myself by photographing the turtle up close and personal.

First I photographed the turtle from a human perspective, looking down at the creature from a high angle.  This is the way we normally see turtles, so it is a good approach for showing identification cues.  But I like to get in close and show creatures from an eye-level perspective, so I laid down on the ground and with a macro lens, began photographing the turtle’s face.

Then all hell broke loose!  I stuck my elbow into a Fire Ant nest, and within two seconds it felt like there was a strong electric current running through my elbow.  I leaped up, frantically brushing ants from my arm and dancing on the roadside.  Later, I counted 22 pustules on and around my right elbow and the spots itched for days.  Fire Ants swarm, then use pheromones (communicative scents) to tell each other when to sting, and it all comes at once.  Meanwhile, I swear the turtle was laughing at me.

On the other hand (or elbow), my close-up photograph showing the face and red eyes of the creature is a winner, and is much more engaging than the higher level shot.  This is what I mean by getting up close and personal with animals, and it usually works well in photography.  Later, I identified the turtle, using Google on my iPhone, as a Three-toed Box Turtle.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.


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