Posted tagged ‘raven’

THE BLACK ANGELS: Ravens Practicing Aerial Maneuvers

June 9, 2010

Perfect synchronization of Common Ravens in flight

Six of them blazed by, wingtip to wingtip, making constant loud noise as they practiced intricate aerial acrobatics. Climbing rapidly, then hurtling into steep dives, coming within feet of the ground, only to pull up into the heavens again. This air show went on for about five minutes, at which point the fliers were running low on fuel and sped off to replenish themselves.

We were hiking on Whiskey Dick Mountain in central Washington State, when we came upon this spectacle. Given the time of year (mid-May), it seemed too late for Common Raven pair bonding and too early for this year’s young with their parents. So the reason for the spectacular flight will remain a mystery, unless a knowledgeable reader can help.

Flying wingtip to wingtip in an aerial ballet

We have seen Common Ravens in the mountains and the deserts over much of North America, and it is always amazing to see them–even when they are scavenging in a national park parking lot. But this is the first time I have been so thrilled to observe these incredible birds in flight. I saw a stick being dropped by one of the birds, but it happened so fast and so close to the ground that I can’t provide an accurate description. Other naturalists have observed these incredible flights, and one person described a raven flying upside-down for half a mile! These bulky black birds are truly masters of flight.

Unexpectedly graceful in flight together

Masters of precision flight

For more information about Common Ravens, go to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s excellent website: All About Birds.

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.

Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

September 9, 2009

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The goal for our July 2009 trip to Round Island, located in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan mainland, was primarily to see hundreds of Pacific Walruses.  But Round Island has rocky headlands that are the nest sites of a quarter-million seabirds, so we enjoyed five days of wonderful birding at close range and with a soundtrack that always included the lyrical cries of Black-legged Kittiwakes and the beautiful notes of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes.  The only ducks we observed were nine Harlequin Ducks in the surf; we are more accustomed to seeing Harlequin Ducks on the fast rivers near our Olympic Peninsula home.

For this weblog entry, I will show you some of my favorite photographs of birds on the island.  I didn’t spend as much time photographing birds as I would have liked, because of several days of windy conditions and the constant distraction of photographing Walruses; however, I was thrilled with the photography I was able to do.

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Tufted Puffin at burrow entrance

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Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in breeding plumage perched at the entrance to its burrow, located among tundra grasses on a cliff face within the Round Island State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The Tufted Puffins were secretive around their burrow entrances, and seemed to wait until we were looking away before silently entering the opening.

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Savannah Sparrow atop dried umbel

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Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) surveying its territory from atop a dried umbel of a Cow Parsnip or Angelica.  Savannah Sparrows were the most common songbird on the island; wherever we walked, they were constantly chipping from atop plants or rocks, and were gathering insects with which to feed their young.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) in breeding plumage perched at edge of breeding colony.  The Horned Puffins perched on exposed rocks on the cliff faces, often several together.  This puffin was sitting about 100 feet from where we pitched our tent, so whenever lighting conditions were good, we would quietly approach the cliff to see if birds were present.  The puffins allowed us to sit on an overlook and photograph, perhaps 35 feet from them.

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Horned Puffins motion picture

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Horned Puffins in flight, heading back to their burrows after a fishing trip off Round Island.  At this point the puffins did not appear to have young, because we never observed any carrying fish.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage stretching and fluffing its wings while perched at the edge of a cliff on Round Island.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Bright reddish-orange feet and wonderful faces characterize this species.

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Landscape of Round Island

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The grassy headlands and rocky cliffs of Round Island provide good habitat for a variety of songbirds and seabirds. There are no bears or wolves on the island, which is located some 40 miles from the mainland.  Here the major predators on nesting birds are Red Foxes and Common Ravens.

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.Pelagic Cormorants in breeding plumage

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Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) in breeding plumage resting, showing metallic iridescence when the sun was coming from directly behind us.

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Pelagic Cormorants with chicks

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Pelagic Cormorants on nests with young, perched on the vertical cliff faces of Round Island.

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Common Murre (Uria aalge) with blue eggs on seaside cliff.  During the half-hour or so that we observed this ledge, the adult left the ledge and both eggs were snatched by a marauding Common Raven.  Staff member Stephanie Sell mentioned that this location had been particularly susceptible to Raven raids, and that many eggs had been lost to predation.

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Common Raven Panting

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Common Raven (Corvus corax) panting to reduce heat stress on a hot day, when temperatures rose to about 80°F (and the temperature inside our tent at 10:00 p.m. was about 110°! ).  Ravens nested on Round Island, and we watched a cliffside nest with four young that were nearly ready to fledge.

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.Egg raided by Common Raven

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A seabird egg probably taken by a Common Raven (we’re not sure of the egg species).  We also observed a Raven carrying a bloody carcass of a small bird, probably a nestling, that it subsequently buried by piling pebbles and wildflowers atop it, creating a cache for later use.

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.Common Raven feather

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Closeup of a molted Common Raven feather.

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Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula) perched on a rock just above the sea.  Often, half-a-dozen auklets gathered on the same rock and chattered noisily.

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Headlands and treeless tundra on Round Island, Alaska

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Tundra grasses on steep hillsides were a better habitat for humans than birds, but we did see Savannah Sparrows there.  In a willow thicket, Hermit Thrushes sang and nested.

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Round Island headquarters building

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Atop the sanctuary office building, Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sorrowful descending notes that reminded me of “Three Blind Mice.”  This is as close as I got (the sparrow is on the roofline on the right side).  Note the steel cables that hold down the building during hurricane-force winds.

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You can read other descriptions of our Round Island adventures at:

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

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


OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Hurricane Ridge in Winter

March 18, 2009

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Common Raven calling from the old trunk of a Whitebark Pine.

At the end of the day of snowshoeing, we were ready to leave the parking lot high atop Hurricane Ridge in Washington state’s Olympic National Park. One car remained, a Volkswagen Jetta that the four occupants couldn’t budge from its parking space. The parking brake cable was frozen. One of the four 20-year-olds crawled under the car and tapped on the cable with a hammer to try and free it, which eventually worked. We waited to make sure they were able to leave successfully, which they finally did. Then we headed down the winding mountain road behind them–the last car off the mountain.

About a third of the way down, the Jetta hit a steep, icy patch and started spinning around, until it was facing uphill. I was too close for comfort on this steep road; when I hit the same icy patch, I found I couldn’t effectively stop the all-wheel drive Pontiac Aztek I was driving and I went into a controlled slide guided by my ABS brakes, which enabled me to pass the Jetta on the left side of the road without hitting it. I was lucky; the Jetta driver was lucky. We both made winter driving mistakes and lived to tell about it. If I hadn’t had ABS brakes, the rangers might have had to haul our broken cars and bodies several thousand feet up the steep, snow-covered mountainside.

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Tall, thin conifers designed by nature to carry little snow (a tree with more spreading limbs would have to bear a tremendously heavy burden of western Washington wet snow).

But enough of potential tragedy. The outing was otherwise terrific. Karen and I finally got in a winter snowshoe trip after several winters of medical problems, including my broken ankle of 2008. Fresh snow fell as we walked, drifting over the subalpine patches of firs, spruces, and Whitebark Pines. There were other cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and walkers out on this beautiful day, but not many. More people were using the downhill ski area, which is an old-fashioned facility with two rope tows. Snowshoes and both kinds of skis are available for daily rentals at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.

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Karen Rentz snowshoeing while snow fell steadily.

I was primarily interested in winter high country photography, so I brought my camera with two zoom lenses and a tele-extender. For just about the first time ever on a mountain trip, I carried no tripod. I wanted to see if I would miss the stable support that I found so important for film photography. I didn’t. Digital photography with image stabilized lenses allows me to work fast and loose at high ISO settings and get remarkably good results. For the future I suspect that the only times I will really need a tripod are for night and macro photography, and for photographing birds for a long period with a very long lens. I am drawn to create graphically clean photographs with no extraneous busyness. Hurricane Ridge was perfect for that approach, with its scattered patches of conifers and clean white snow-covered meadows.

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Common Raven pretending to be Darth Vader.

Even the birds cooperated for my photography. Gray Jays and Common Ravens are notorious beggars, so they are not afraid of people and I was able to use my camera at close range. Just don’t tell the National Park Service that I fed the Gray Jays bits of a Toffee Chocolate Chip Power Bar (my emergency food) from my hand. I swear I could hear them sighing with contentment from full bellies.

Actually, the behavior of the ravens and jays around humans is nothing new. Both species are scavengers that feed around the leavings of animals killed by bears, and both species undoubtedly hung around tribal villages because they knew that humans don’t necessarily eat every scrap of food.  Native Americans of this region celebrated ravens, using the figure as a symbol in totem poles and other artistic forms of expression and identity.

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Gray Jay hoping for a handout.


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Gray Jay checking out the colorfully-clothed big mammal.

During the winter the Hurricane Ridge Road is usually open only three days a week, because it is such a big and expensive responsibility for the National Park Service to keep the road plowed.  We saw two huge vehicles parked near the road, waiting for the next big snowfall.  These weren’t the normal plows that many of us are accustomed to; instead, they are giant snowblowers designed to throw the snow over the road shoulder and down the mountainside.  The little boy in me would love to see these machines in operation.  By the way, all vehicles are required to carry tire chains on this road during the winter.  For more information about Olympic National Park in winter go to:  http://www.nps.gov/olym/

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Common Raven on a an old snag.

 

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Karen Rentz doing an exercise suggested by the sign.

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.

 

September 30, 2008 Ice Age

November 25, 2008

 

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We arrived at the trailhead late in the day, not knowing what we would find below Mount Edith Cavell in Canada’s Jasper National Park. A married couple from the USA–perhaps from Oklahoma or part of Texas by the twang–excitedly told us that this was the best area they had seen during their week in the Canadian Rockies!  So we got out our camera gear and started down the Path of the Glacier interpretive trail.

This snowy north side of Mount Edith Cavell was breathtaking (or maybe it was the altitude!), and it has always been a significant landmark in the Athabasca River Valley.  Three glaciers live on this side of the mountain:  the Angel Glacier, the Cavell Glacier, and the smaller Ghost Glacier.  All are retreating, as are most glaciers along the Rocky Mountain spine of Canada and the United States.  Blame climate change.  In fact, in a few short years Glacier National Park in Montana may have no glaciers at all.  What shall we change the name to at that point?  I know:  Glacier National Historic Park!  But I digress …

Mount Edith Cavell was named for a heroic English nurse who helped soldiers escape from the German onslaught during World War I.  When caught, she was executed by the Germans.  A genuine hero, she is celebrated in this Canadian outpost of the old British Empire by the mighty mountain.

The Path of the Glacier Trail meanders along a valley that was occupied by Cavell Glacier several decades ago, but has now been freed from the frozen grip of ice.  Conifers and a few wildflowers are starting to return to the valley, but the growing season is so short that it will be decades before the subalpine forest feels like a forest and not one of life’s most remote outposts. 

When we reached Cavell Pond, into which Cavell Glacier calves, it was near twilight.  The aquamarine lake was frozen, and numerous icebergs were stranded in the pond and along the shore.  It was a spectacular place.  We photographed until the light faded, then decided to come back the next day to see it again and to get closer to Cavell Glacier.

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The next day, we hiked to the glistening face of Cavell Glacier and looked the ice age in the eye–then backed down, deciding the ice age was tougher than us and that we had no desire to live in the same terrain as Wooly Mammoths and Sabre-toothed Cats.We spent the rest of the morning photographing icebergs, ice details, pioneering lichens, and a pair of Common Ravens who had little fear of modern people.  Their distant ancestors undoubtedly interacted with ancient humans in this icy terrain, perhaps hanging around during the hunt in order to claim some bits of Caribou flesh–which undoubtedly would have been healthier for them than the Cheetos that some hikers tossed to the contemporary scavengers.

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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.