TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

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

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Exploring Santa Cruz Island

Island Foxes greet each other with obvious affection; seeing these foxes was the highlight of our journey to Santa Cruz Island

En route to Santa Cruz Island, the boat’s captain steered us off course, so we could see dolphins porpoising (or is it porpoises dolphining?) over the Santa Barbara Channel. Our crossing was smooth, so we were glad that we hadn’t applied the seasickness patches; they work, but make me groggy.

Dolphins viewed during our ride to Santa Cruz Island

We pulled up to Scorpion Anchorage, a protected cove with a dock, where a National Park Service Ranger greeted us and filled us in on the rules and regs. He also checked our campground reservations.

Visitors arriving on the Island Packers boat from Ventura; from here we carried our packs and other gear about a half a mile to the campground.

Then we gathered our gear and began the scant half-mile trudge to our campsite, which proved to be a lovely spot under huge old eucalyptus trees that were planted in the early days of Scorpion Ranch. There was a picnic table and a pair of food lockers, one at each end of the table, to ensure that campers’ food was kept away from the inquisitive and daring little Island Foxes that trot through the campground with regularity, as well as the startlingly intelligent Common Ravens that know we are a source of food.

Campsites are located in a eucalyptus grove

After setting up our tent, we followed a trail up Scorpion Creek, then went off trail into Scorpion Canyon, in hopes of seeing the Island Scrub-Jay among the oaks that thrive in that canyon. Skirting pools of standing water, we walked and scrambled up the rocky, narrow reaches of the canyon. It was lovely, with red rocks and intricately branched oaks. There were lizards and small birds and species of plants that we had never seen before. There were even a couple of small rock overhangs, one of which had clear evidence of early humans. With the pile of chert and abalone shells out front, we could imagine a Chumash Indian crouching there, eating a meal and waiting for night to steal away the day, revealing a stunning spread of the Milky Way overhead.

Wild and beautiful Scorpion Canyon is the the best place to see the Island Scrub-Jay when coming to Scorpion Anchorage, though it is a rough hike over the boulder-strewn creek bed

Then we heard it … a clear call of a jay. In the oaks across the canyon, higher on the dry slope, there was a big, blue Island Scrub-Jay foraging in the branches of an oak. This species lives nowhere else on earth, so all the bird listers from across North America have to make a similar pilgrimmage into this remote canyon in order to add the species to their life list.

Island Scrub-Jay–a species found nowhere else on earth. This species is substantially larger than its nearest relatives on the mainland, and makes its living feeding mainly on Island Live Oak acorns.

After the jay moved on, so did we. The day was getting late, so we had to figure out how to get out of the canyon and back to camp before nightfall. We decided that instead of going back, we would try to climb out of the canyon by going due north up the steep side of the canyon. It was a huff-and-puff climb and scramble, but eventually we emerged onto a stunning, grassy plateau, where we followed an old ranch road toward Potato Harbor. As we gazed down toward the crashing sea below, Karen spotted an Island Fox trotting through the grassland. This was incredibly exciting for us, since we had hoped to see a fox but thought the chances were remote. Little did we know that, since their population recovered from near extinction, the little foxes are again thriving and don’t seem to mind being seen by humans. They are certainly not tame, but they are not especially afraid of us, either.

Island Fox fitted with radio collar to help scientists monitor the population

Island Foxes are about a quarter the size of their closest mainland relatives, and saw their populations plunge from above 2,000 in the 1990s to below 100 about seven years later, due to a complex series of events set in motion by mankind. I will fully explain this chain of events in a coming weblog.

We watched a second fox hunting in this area above Potato Harbor, and this one had on a radio collar that was recording its every move, so that scientist could monitor the recovering fox population.

The high and lonely headlands above Potato Harbor

Is it just me, or does this formation above Potato Harbor look like a warning that Indiana Jones would have disregarded?

With darkness coming fast, we switched on our headlamps and followed the old Potato Harbor Road back toward the campground. As the road led steeply down off the plateau, we crossed some extensive patches of bare, white earth. These were different from most of the soils of the island, and they turned out to be diatomaceous earth, which is composed of billions of silicon skeletons of algae that once lived in the sea.

Heading back to camp by headlamp

We reached the campground well after dark. While walking through the campground, Karen caught the gleam in a fox’s eye as it stood atop a picnic table, foraging on food left on the table by some campers who had turned their backs and were rummaging in their tent. Another coup for the wily fox!

That night, the stars splayed magnificently across the sky as we prepared a backpacking dinner with the hiss of the MSR stove and the stabbing rays of our headlamps. Deeply tired, we sank into pleasant sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to beautiful sunshine on the grassy hills rising across Scorpion Creek from our campsite. We spent a couple of pleasant hours exploring the Scorpion Ranch buildings and immersing our minds in the lives of those who spent generations here, growing grapes, raising hay, tending sheep, maintaining roads, and all the other tasks of a large-scale rancher. The National Park Service has maintained the ranch buildings beautifully, and repurposed one of them for use as a visitor center. This is the area where people coming off the boat for the day generally have lunch, and there are plenty of big lockers to keep food from the foxes while people are taking a short hike or exploring the ranch buildings.

Golden hills and cirrus clouds in morning light near the campground

Old ranch buildings and blooms of bougainvillea at Scorpion Ranch

This was a beautiful, but sometimes lonely, place to live and raise sheep

The walkway into the building now repurposed as a National Park Service visitor center is paved with tumbled and polished beach stones

Old ranch building with a huge circular saw blade

At Scorpion Ranch there is a lot of old and rusting ranch and road-building machinery; this photograph shows the fanciful logo of an old Caterpillar bulldozer

Canned goods inside the old kitchen, now part of the visitor center at Scorpion Anchorage

Interior detail of an old blacksmith shop at Scorpion Ranch

We stopped and photographed an Island Fox in the bright sunshine as it foraged among the tall grasses of the hillside. Then we walked down to the pier to see what tide pool creatures we could see, and were rewarded with the sight of a colony of bright purple sea urchins. There was also a crab that was bigger than we expected to see–about a foot across. We got glimpses of it through the kelp that waved back and forth. There were fish about a foot long, and we looked for large, bright orange Garibaldi (California’s state marine fish), but didn’t see any.

An impressionist view through surging waves of Purple Sea Urchins, which are collected for their edible roe by divers in the vicinity of the Channel Islands

We decided to do another hike up Scopion Canyon, to see if we could get a closer look (and photograph) of an Island Scrub Jay. We enjoyed good looks at Pacific Chorus Frogs and their tadpoles. We also saw a new bird species for our life list–the Rufous-Crowned Sparrow. We eventually saw a jay, but it kept its distance.

Side-blotched Lizard in Scorpion Canyon

Pacific Chorus Frog in a stagnant pool in otherwise dry (that day) Scorpion Creek

Rock shelter used by Chumash Indians, perhaps over thousands of years during their occupation of the island

Again, we climbed out of the canyon onto the plateau. This time, as we looked down the length of Santa Cruz Island where the steel gray Pacific met the land, there were thick gray layers of clouds, with watercolor washes of rain falling on the distant hills. We decided to head quickly back to camp.

High grasslands in the area above Scorpion Canyon and Potato Harbor

Headlands above the Pacific Ocean between Potato Harbor and Cavern Point

That night, the heavens opened up, with hard rain all night. We stayed dry in a new tent, but other campers weren’t so lucky. Two young men were sitting glumly at their picnic table early the next morning; when I asked them if they got wet, they grumbled that they were soaked, because water came up through the bottom of their tent. Later, I watched them pouring GALLONS of water from the tent as they packed up. I asked a lady ranger how much rain had fallen overnight, and she said there was about 1.6.” That’s roughly 10% of the yearly annual rainfall here. There were puddles in the road, but the plants looked as fresh and happy as the wet campers looked wet and dejected.

Blue tarp campers–more commonly seen in the Pacific Northwest, where we live, than in southern California

In the unsettled weather, we decided to hike the dirt road to Smugglers Cove, where there was another old ranch. The road surface was slick from the overnight rain, and our hiking boot treads caked uncomfortably with heavy, squishy mud. Once atop the plateau, the views across the open grasslands toward the sea and the distant mainland were stupendous. We stopped for a break in a grove of Monterey Cypress, then continued on to the ranch. Descending the steep hill to the ranch, we walked past an old grove of olive trees, planted when the owners long ago decided to get into the olive business.

Scorpion Anchorage viewed from the Smugglers Cove Road

Monterey Cypress grove along the Smugglers Cove Road, with a view to Anacapa Island

An evocative view along an old fence line intersecting Smugglers Cove Road, with the grand Pacific Ocean distant

An olive orchard was part of the Smugglers Cove ranch operation

As we approached the ranch from the cobble beach, four foxes that had been foraging in the meadow scattered into the adjacent brush. The ranch still had plantings of bougainvillea, which was bright with magenta blooms. We took shelter under the eaves of a building next to the ranch house during a hard shower; and I took the opportunity to pick a couple of oranges for us from a tree. As northern people, we had never before had the opportunity to pick oranges fresh from a tree [In contrast: when I was displaying my photography at an art show in San Francisco several years ago, one woman said my photograph of apples hanging on a tree in late autumn, and she said she had never seen an apple tree!]. There was also a nearby lemon tree, very pretty, but we decided that these fruits were impossible to eat fresh from the tree.

After leaving the ranch and heading back up on the plateau, we took a spur road that led up to an abandoned oil well, where I stopped to photograph the

Rusty surface of a steel shed at the old and abandoned oil well

old machinery. Then we descended steeply into the valley of Scorpion Creek. In the valley, Karen suddenly stopped and said that a Loggerhead Shrike had just dived into a bush about four feet away from her. I got out my long lens and was able to get great photographs of the shrike when it emerged and perched atop the same bush, perhaps eight feet from us. It lingered a long time, enabling me to get dozens of photographs at this unexpectedly close range. This gave me a sense of part of what the National Park Service means when they call the Channel Islands the “Galapagos of North America.” The wildlife is abundant, different from the mainland, and not very afraid of people.

Loggerhead Shrike in lower Scorpion Canyon; a subspecies endemic to the Channel Islands that is relatively rare

Mourning Dove on an old fence

We walked back along the trail along Scorpion Creek, which had turned from a dry creek bed with intermittent pools where frogs lived lazily with their tadpole offspring, to a raging, brown current that moved boulders, carved stone, and carried little tadpoles out to the playground of sharks. This was an excellent lesson in canyon-cutting, and we were glad we didn’t need to hike up narrow Scorpion Canyon again in order to see endemic jays. We might not have made it.

Finch foraging on a thistle near Scorpion Creek

On our next and final morning, we hiked up a trail to Cavern Point. Nearing the top, we saw a fox trotting up the trail ahead of us. Suddenly, it dashed across the meadow; I thought we had scared it, but then we saw what it was doing. It had sighted another fox across the field and was running over to see it. It was like a glorious reunion of people who have not seen each other for years. Well, maybe a bit different since there was tail-wagging (I didn’t realize that foxes could exhibit this dog-like behavior) and vigorous sniffing that looked like kissing. After a long greeting, the two foxes foraged in close proximity to each other. It was thrilling for us to be able to see such fascinating emotional behavior.

Two Island Foxes greeting each other like long-lost buddies

Island Fox hunting in a meadow; these foxes eat a lot of insects, scorpions, mice, and berries

Island Fox foraging on Santa Cruz Island near Scorpion Ranch

Then it was time to leave. We were extremely satisfied with our hikes and wildlife sightings. What a wonderful place!

Common Raven on the headlands at Cavern Point

Beautiful cliffs of Scorpion Anchorage

Patches of white diatomaceous earth–made of the silicon “skeletons” of untold billions of ancient algae that once inhabited the sea–along road leading down to the Scorpion campground

Limbs of an Island Oak along Scorpion Canyon

To get to the Channel Islands, Island Packers offers boat access to each of the islands.  Check their web site for all details and schedules. The National Park Service has excellent descriptions of Channel Islands National Park, including information about the biology and geology of the islands, and the rules for visiting. T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” about the ethical implications of the National Park Service’s replacement of exotic species in the Channel Islands with native species; it’s an excellent and timely novel for anyone interested in National Park policy.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

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

SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset glow on an owl getting ready to hunt

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

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

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

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

These owls are graceful flyers, with strong and rhythmic wingbeats

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

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

Flying to a quieter location farther out on the point

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

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

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

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

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

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Exploring Tide Pools at Point of Arches

Sunset glow illuminating the conglomerate rocks and salt spray at Point of Arches

The first time we visited Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in Olympic National Park, it was the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January, 1991. The weather was unseasonably clear and cold, with no rain predicted–perfect for a winter backpacking trip. The beach was frosty and mostly deserted, though we met one melancholy couple who were enjoying a last Pacific Northwest backpacking trip before moving from Seattle to Iowa (not that there’s anything wrong with cornfields!).

Our favorite experience on that trip was exploring the tide pools of Point of Arches, where we saw Blood Stars and Aggregating Sea Anemones and Giant Green Anemones. In fact, we learned an important lesson during our last morning of tide pooling: they’re called TIDE pools for a reason. We lost track of time while I was photographing, and were late in deciding to walk back to the beach. When we came to a tidal channel that was blocking our route back, we realized that we didn’t have time to retrace our steps and look for an alternate route, and that we had to plunge through it. So, we waded nearly thigh deep through wintery saltwater in order to make it safely back. Lesson learned.

Sunflower Star and reflected light off sand ripples at lowest tide

On our 2011 Fourth of July hike to Point of Arches, we always kept the tide charts in the back of our minds. And we ended up having two of the best tide pool experiences of our naturalist lives. I’ll speak to the specific experiences in the captions, just suffice it to say that the Leather Stars, Blood Stars, chitons, crabs, sculpins, kelp, and isopods were endlessly fascinating.

Enjoy the pictures, and go tide pooling if you get a chance–especially with children. It is a fascinating glimpse into the watery world, which can seem like an alternative universe because the lifeforms are so different. Just be careful to observe the tide charts …

Hikers with a beautiful sunset backlighting the airborne sea spray

At lowest tide we climbed over rocks completely blanketed by slippery kelp; this tidal channel blocked our way from going any further, but here we were able to see a Leather Star–a sea star we had never before observed

The Ochre Sea Star comes in three major color variants, which are playing Twister on a barnacle-encrusted rock

The Sunflower Star encounters a Giant Green Anemone in a tide pool; notice how two of the star’s arms are recoiling after being stung by the anemone 

Up close and personal, the Giant Green Anemone’s mouth and tentacles look beautiful–and menacing to the creatures that are its prey. The green color comes from algae living in the tissues of the anemone. Interesting factoid: the anemone can push its stomach out through its mouth to give itself a deep-cleansing mouthwash!

Vosnesensky’s Isopod is a creature up to two inches long that looks like it might be a bedbug infesting the waterbed of a mermaid

The Blood Star is a small and stiff sea star that is a vivid scarlet

Velvety Red Sponge

Eye candy for those who love magenta and purple, this intricate seaweed defied my attempts to identify it

Purple Encrusting Sponge spreading over rough rock and exposed at low tide, with an Ochre Sea Star creating the foreground texture

Kelp completely covered many intertidal rocks; its color is a yellowish-brown, and here the slippery, shiny surface is reflecting the blue sky

Black Katy Chiton on a rough rock encrusted with other organisms

Blood Star with Giant Green Anemones

This Giant Green Anemone withdrew its tentacles as the tide went ever lower, leaving a ring of tracks around itself

Looking out from one of the sea caves–created by the pounding surf–at Point of Arches

In contrast to the soaring beauty of the wilderness beach; here is evidence that we are all connected to nature in rather mundane ways. This is one of three toilets the National Park Service provides for campers. And given the number of campers here on any nice weekend, I’m glad they provide the “facilities,” such as they are.

Our campfire on the beach at twilight, with the rocky sea stacks of Point of Arches marching out into the great Pacific

When the tide starts rushing in–as in this photograph–I look for a safe return route to the beach

Surfgrass waves gently back and forth with the surging and receding waves

This is a typical view of the exposed rocks as the tide starts to come in

A classic low tide view of Point of Arches, with the sea stacks reflected on the wet beach sand

And now for something a bit different: at sunset several people gathered on the beach to discuss this phenomenon. Some jokingly wondered if it was a UFO or if North Korea had launched an ICBM. Alas, the truth was that this slow moving trail was the contrail of a passenger jet coming over the horizon at the perfect time to be backlit by the setting sun.

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guess that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead. For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach and view my other two blog entries about Point of Arches at The Peregrine and the Pirate and Crab Chaos and Human Creativity.

YOHO NATIONAL PARK: The Day of the Wolverine

Wolverine carrying a dead Hoary Marmot

Karen and I were hiking to Lake Oesa, a turquoise gem in a mighty mountain cirque, on our first morning in Canada’s Yoho National Park, along with three companions who were behind us on the trail. We had stashed our gear in the Elizabeth Parker hut, then set out on the trail, first rounding part of Lake O’Hara, then climbing the switchbacks up the trail to a high bench studded with lakes.

At the first viewpoint, we paused to rest after the climb. While gazing out toward a tarn at the base of Yukness Mountain, I saw a large, dark animal crossing a sedge meadow next to the tarn, but within a couple of seconds it disappeared in a willow thicket. Karen caught a passing glimpse. My mind went through the possibilities. Black Bear? If so, it was a small bear, but it moved more nimbly than a bear. Wolverine? We couldn’t get that lucky–or could we? The legs were short, but the body relatively long. We thought through the two options, deciding it had to be a Wolverine.

The Wolverine ascended a steep boulder field

I went back along the trail a few yards and called to our companions that we had just seen a Wolverine. They laughed at my presumed joke and I said, “No, really–you’ve got to come and look for it!”

Anticipating the animal’s movement, Karen and I struggled to climb over rough talus to where we could get a better viewpoint if it continued to move along the base of the mountain. Bingo! We sighted it again. It was moving quickly among the sharp boulders at the base of the mountain. Hand-holding my 500mm lens, I managed to get a lot of photographs in a short time as the Wolverine made its way up through the boulders. It appeared to be carrying something heavy, which we decided was a big, fat marmot. Like a human making the same journey with a heavy pack, the Wolverine had to frequently stop and rest.

Setting down the marmot to rest during the steep ascent

For perhaps five minutes, we watched the Wolverine ascend the steep slope up to the next bench, and it disappeared from sight. Later, we talked to a photographer who was at the first lake on the bench, and he excitedly said that he had seen a Wolverine moving quickly past the lake, heading for higher country. We didn’t see it again, but I consider this to be one of the best wildlife sightings of our lives, since Wolverines are relatively scarce and rare to see.

Karen created video of the Wolverine while I did photography. To see her short video of the Wolverine in action, go to Wolverine Video.

Before I go on, I should mention that I am a Wolverine. Or at least that I grew up in the Wolverine State–Michigan–and graduated from the University of Michigan, where the sports teams are known as the Wolverines. But the namesake animal had not been seen in the state since the very early 1800s–until 2004, when a biologist saw and photographed a lone Wolverine ambling across a farm field in Michigan’s thumb, a most unlikely place to see a fierce predator. Before that, most of the Wolverines in the Wolverine State were furs that trappers to the north brought through the French-named ports of Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit.

Wolverines are opportunistic predators that can take down much larger animals in deep snow, and they are known to dig marmots out of dens. For an excellent synopsis of Wolverine ecology and biology, go to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

From all the days and weeks we spend outdoors, there are a few moments we could never possibly forget. Our Wolverine sighting at Yoho National Park was one of those times, and was the highlight of our trip to Lake O’Hara, which I believe is the most beautiful place we have ever experienced in North America.

The color pattern on the fur is distinctive

The Wolverine was adept at finding its way through the maze of boulders

Wolverines often enter deep into a hibernating marmot’s den to snatch the marmot for a late fall or winter meal

Wolverines have a reputation as fierce predators who can defend their prey against bears and wolves that try to steal a free meal

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.

For another entry in my weblog about Yoho National Park, go to Ice.

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

MOUNT ASSINIBOINE PROVINCIAL PARK: Photographing Unsettled Weather

Emerging from the clouds like a dome from Yosemite

Our trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada, was planned to coincide with sunny September skies and the glorious gold color of Alpine Larches in the high country. Nature had other plans. Rainy, cold days, and mountains playing peek-a-boo with us were followed by snow. There was little sun.

But, as every nature photographer soon learns, bright sun is boring! I find myself more fascinated with the details of the landscape when I’m not being constantly swept away by fantasic views, and that is just fine with me. I’ll take unsettled weather almost every time, except in those moments when I’m shivering under a pelting rain at a mountain pass, on the verge of hypothermia; then I just might take warm sun.

These photographs represent a portfolio of five wonderful days on the trails near Mount Assiniboine, a peak shaped like the Matterhorn, but which never revealed itself fully on our trip.

An Alpine Larch in all its autumn glory against the turquoise waters of Elizabeth Lake

Alpine Larch is a deciduous conifer, meaning it has needles like other conifers, but they turn color and fall in the fall like deciduous hardwood trees

Wildflowers bloomed late this year, so there were quite a few species still in bloom during our mid-September visit

Purple Asters are my favorite fall wildflower; I photographed this one during a light rain

Dramatic clouds raced across the landscape, throwing brief beams of sunlight across the meadow of Og Creek

Fresh snow and a knife-edged ridge above the meadows of Og Creek

Sun sparkling off the waves on Cerulean Lake, with Alpine Larches and Englemann Spruces along the shore

Waterfall of Magog Creek along the trail to Wonder Pass

We watched at close range as this Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel harvested a puffball from a mountain meadow, then went to a rocky overlook to have his lunch

At higher elevations we encountered this beautiful conglomerate, which had stones several inches across embedded in a concrete-like matrix

A peak floating in the clouds

Rain on the sad autumn leaves of Fireweed and Meadow Rue

Descending down the trail through an Alpine Larch grove from Og Pass

Magog Creek as it emerges from Gog Lake

Each of the lakes appeared to have a resident Barrow’s Goldeneye during our visit

An orange lichen that looked like a logo left by a prior civilization

A sodden cinquefoil at the end of flowering

A sad aster enduring a cold rain

An elegant natural arrangement of spruces and larches along Lake Elizabeth

Clouds among the peaks, signaling a change in the weather; it snowed soon after

A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel looking fat for winter survival

Golden Alpine Larch, blue mountains

Alpine Larches reflecting in Gog Lake

The magical trail down through the Alpine Larch zone just below Wonder Pass

Ridges of rock briefly revealed by parting clouds

Snow beginning to fall in the meadow of the Naiset Huts

The flakes got bigger as twilight approached

The last morning of our visit, Magog Creek flowed through a fantasyland of snowy spruce forest

One of our beautiful asters enduring an early snow

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.

For two more stories in my weblog about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to Grizzly Bears and Staying in a Mountain Hut.

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.




MOUNT ASSINIBOINE: A Grizzly Bear Tale


A hard-eyed gaze at the intruders.

On a chilly September pre-dawn, three of us hiked down the dark trail to Lake Magog through a thick spruce forest, intent on photographing dawn alpenglow on Mount Assiniboine and other high peaks in this high cirque of the Canadian Rockies. Ed, in front of Karen and I, was quietly singing “Where oh where is the Grizzly Bear; where oh where can he be?”  We were strung out a bit on the trail, and Ed turned back to Karen and said he saw an animal ahead that looked to be about wolf sized. Karen didn’t see it, but she told me. I stopped and looked into the willows just behind us at this point and clearly saw the rounded shape and grizzled gray hair of an adult Griz. Then I saw a second, which was a cub accompanying its mother. We were too close, so we backed up along the trail, watching as the mother and two cubs crossed the trail where we had just been.

Looking and sniffing across the lake at what may be a distant threat.

The bears ambled closer to Lake Magog, and were perhaps 100 yards from us. Then the mother bear rose to her hind legs and looked intently down to the lakeshore, where we had seen a brace of dentists fly fishing the previous morning. She walked around on two legs, like a gigantic human, gazing in that direction and looking agitated for perhaps ten seconds. At that point she hurried to cover, where she again stood up. Then, apparently satisfied, she returned to the business at hand. With her cubs, she began digging into the ground, going deep to try and extract a Columbian Ground Squirrel from its den. In examining the videos, we can’t tell for sure if she got a ground squirrel, but she may have.

Karen had an emergency whistle with her, so we decided that she should repeatedly give three blasts of the whistle to warn other people in the area to be aware. Three other members of our group soon joined us, and people at the lodge and huts later told us that they had heard the warning whistles.

At one point, the mother Griz stopped, briefly looked directly at us, and got into what looked to me like an aggressive stance, on all four legs, head raised, mouth open, and restlessly moving around a bit while gazing at us. At that point I took out my bear spray, just in case a charge was imminent. But mama Griz decided that our whistles and talk and camera clicking were just some more bewildering human behavior, and she went back to tending her cubs. Shortly thereafter, they disappeared behind some tall willow bushes, and we didn’t see them again.

Later in the day, perhaps two miles up a trail, a Canadian couple saw what we believe were the same three bears, so they had been on the move since our early morning sighting. The Canadians also saw a lone bear during the same hike. I later showed the dental convention participants my photos of the bears, which produced a lot of amazement, since many of them had fished near that very spot on previous mornings. But none had been there during our grizzly experience.  Which leaves the question, what was the mama Grizzly looking at when she was standing on her hind legs? My theory is that she had smelled or spotted the lone bear that was seen later; after all, male bears are a major threat to cubs and a mother bear has to vigorously defend her offspring to make sure they won’t be eaten by a big male. Alternatively, the bear might have seen some wolves, or perhaps a backpacking camper down along the lake. We’ll never know for sure.

When we came to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, bears were on our mind. After all, we had just bought two aerosol cans of pepper-based bear spray prior to the trip. Canada’s parks don’t allow guns and, in any event, pepper spray is almost certainly more effective than a handgun against a fast-charging bear. In the car on the way to Canada, Karen read out loud about Grizzly Bears on her iPhone. We learned that they can eat 250,000 Buffaloberries in a single day (biologists who learned this important fact had to count the seeds in a grizzly bear’s daily output of scat–I can just see Mike Rowe of America’s Dirtiest Jobs taking a Canadian side trip and digging through the still-warm piles!). So, when we got to Banff, we learned to identify Buffaloberries, which we don’t recall seeing before. I even tasted one of these berries, which has a soapy texture and a slightly bitter aftertaste–if I was a bear, I’d move to a place with huckleberries instead. We also learned about bears turning over rocks to look for insects beneath, and about digging sleeping ground squirrels out of their underground nests. In fact, a Grizzly Bear’s big hump on its back contains the muscle attachments that, along with the 2″ claws, gives a Griz its ability to dig fast and deep into stony soil. High in some areas of the American Rockies, bears gather to eat the larvae of moths.

When we arrived in Banff National Park, we observed two Black Bears feeding on Buffaloberries along the highway. One had a blue ear tag, so he was either a bad news bear or a reseach subject. When we stopped to see these Black Bears, it was just like the bear jams of Yellowstone National Park, with people getting out of their cars to try and get photos at close range with point and shoot cameras. Those of us who respect the power of bears stayed safely in our cars.

While hiking near the Assiniboine huts, we encountered a man backpacking with his yellow Labrador, a really sweet dog. He said that the dog had aggressively protected him during three prior encounters with Grizzly Bears. He camped in the campground about a mile away from Assiniboine Lodge that night. But the next night, he moved into one of the Naiset Huts near ours. It seems that a Grizzly Bear had come into camp that morning and unnerved him. My theory is that his dog ATTRACTS Grizzly Bears, leading to these confrontations.

As for the beautiful alpenglow on the snowy peaks? I hardly noticed, with my attention locked like a weapons system on my target, the bears. Alas, it would have been a beautiful photograph. Next time.

I’ll close with one good bear story. A year or so ago, in one of the Canadian parks, a man encountered a bear at close range along a trail, which came aggressively toward him. Fumbling with his can of bear spray, he managed to spray it backwards, directly into his own face! At which point he began screaming and dancing around waving his arms in extreme pain. The now-scared bear thought the guy was totally insane, and ran in the other direction. That is one way to make bear spray effective!

Lake Magog sits in the cirque of Mount Assiniboine.

Bitter and soapy (to humans), Buffaloberries are a critical part of a bear’s diet in the Canadian Rockies. A Grizzly Bear can consume 250,000 of these berries in one day!

Columbian Ground Squirrels are a crucial source of protein for Grizzly Bears, who have massive muscles that allow them to dig quickly into the dens of sleeping or hibernating ground squirrels. On our visit, most of the ground squirrels had already entered hibernation.

Standing on hind legs gives the bear a chance to better sense a threat.

This mother bear had two cubs accompanying her (only one shown here).

A shallow hole, with claw marks, where the Grizzly had been digging and eating the roots of Sweet Vetch.

This impression represents the shape of a rock that had been pried up and tossed aside as a bear searched for insects beneath. It was one of half-a-dozen we saw along a short stretch of trail.

On this rainy morning, the Grizzly tracks soon filled with water.

A deep hole dug to get at a hibernating ground squirrel.

A menacing stance …

We will never forget the morning of the Assiniboine Grizzlies.

This Seattle Mountaineers trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore, whose love of all things wild in Canada is clearly evident. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. We flew by helicopter into the park and stayed in the Naiset Huts, while others stayed in the relatively luxurious Mount Assiniboine Lodge or camped in a hike-in provincial park campground about a mile from the lodge.

For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.

For a primer on Grizzly Bears, go to the National Wildlife Federation website.

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.