August 5, 2008 Antelope Island State Park, Utah

 

When I lived in Utah from 1975 through 1977, I never visited the Great Salt Lake because the lake wasn’t easily accessible to the area whereI lived.  Since then, Antelope Island was bought by the state of Utah and has since become a first-class state park–of a high enough quality that it should have been a national monument.  The largest island in the Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island is connected to the mainland via a long causeway, so it is easily accessible.  I camped in one of two established campgrounds, and most of my camping neighbors were Germans, visiting the USA on one of their extended vacations.  The Germans often rent RVs to travel the American West, which has always held a romantic appeal for them.  What I don’t understand is why more Americans aren’t visiting this extraordinary park.

I had visited several years ago, and vowed then to come back and photograph the landscape and lakescape here.  My time was limited to one late afternoon and evening, plus the next morning, so I had limited time for photography.  But I managed to get a good variety of photographs of the lake, the dry landscape, the Fielding Garr Ranch, and the wildlife that inhabit this island.

I started with the lake itself, where I went for a swim on this hot day.  It was as warm as bathwater!  With a variety of Germans and other mostly foreign tourists, I experienced the delight of floating in saturated saltwater with head, feet, and hands easily sticking up out of the water with absolutely no effort–it was as relaxing as a good nap.  I even took my expensive digital camera with me and floated with the camera held in one hand overhead to get a picture of my legs pointed out at the lake.  Great legs … aren’t they?  But perhaps not worth the risk to the camera.  Other impressions:  the scent of saltwater and the tiny creatures living and dying in the lake.  Hiss of brine fly wings as millions take off from the beach, startled by my movement and looking like a miniature flock of birds similarly scared by an intruder.  My salt-encrusted body emerging from the lake, sticky and unpleasant until showering.  The lake bottom with wave ripples and coated in places with brine flies sitting on the surface by the millions.  But they don’t cover the whole lake; they are concentrated in dense brushstrokes across the surface.  My saltwater-soaked beach towel dried stiff as a board and I had to scrape salt deposit off the camera where I had handled it with wet hands.

 

I then set out to explore the island’s roads.  I hadn’t realized that so much wildlife lived here, but there are some 500 American Bison, plus Pronghorns, Mule Deer, Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Mountain Sheep–as well as immense flocks of migrating and resident birds.  The lighting was wonderful for the landscape and wildlife.

 

 

 
Then I visited the Fielding Garr Ranch, which used to be the headquarters for cattle and sheep ranching on the island. Now it is a living museum, where visitors can see chickens and horses, and a variety of old farm equipment.

Antelope Island State Park is an extraordinary place, one that I intend to return to repeatedly through the coming years.  In the busy valley that includes Salt Lake City and Ogden, it is a place apart, where you can still sense the lovely environment that prehistoric inhabitants enjoyed for nearly 10,000 years.  [Click on photos below to enlarge them and read descriptions]

One other note:  whenever I visit a place, the old stories and historic culture are never far from the surface.  This time, on a local NPR station I heard several Mormon historians discussing the book they had just written about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.  This little-known event, which took place in a mountain valley near St. George, Utah, involved the slaughter of 120 men, women, and children who were on their way west in a wagon train from Arkansas.  The massacre was orchestrated and carried out by a local Mormon militia, who believed that they were on the verge of war with the United States.  It is a sad and sorry chapter of American history that has done more than a little damage to the Utah soul over the years.

To view more of my work, go to LeeRentz.com

June 18, 2008 Cross Fox & Family

While traveling through Lake Superior State Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am photographically prepared for wildlife.  In the summer of 2007, I saw a Moose and a Black Bear in this forest, and want to be prepared for whatever I see.  So I travel with the camera ready with a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender.  This is a good combination for wildlife, but I find that I still have to get close to a creature to get a good picture.  Anyway, I was an Eagle Scout, so my motto has to be “Be Prepared.”  And today it worked out well.

Late this afternoon, as I approached a sandy road cut in my vehicle, I saw movement ahead and quickly counted four kits and one adult fox playing much too close to the road.  I pulled over when I could, and meanwhile the foxes had scrambled for safety up and over the embankment and into the forest; several looking down at me from their higher perch.  Then I drove to a nearby side road and saw the family again, this time gathered in a meadow.  I stopped and got a few pictures before the family went back into the forest.  When I first parked the vehicle to try and get a picture, the adult was relaxed enough to be laying down, eyes half-closed in a squint that looks so restful.  My sequence of pictures shows the adult laying down along, then one kit coming up and nuzzling, then the adult looked directly at me.  Then the adult rose when it saw I was staying and stared with eyes wide open and intent on me and my intentions.  Eventually it decided to leave and took the kits with her.

I later went back to the main road and discovered the fox den on the other side of the road from where I first saw them, near the top of the sandy road cut.  This is the second den I have located in Lake Superior State Forest, and each one has been near the top of a steep (but not very high), sandy road cut.  In each case the den entrance was in the open, without any obstructing vegetation.  The fox knows to dig the den just below the root line of the trees and other plants; this allows easy digging but provides a stable roof of soil held in place by the roots.  This fox didn’t pick such a good den location, however, being right at the edge of an asphalt highway–upon which I later saw two of the young foxes playing.

These Red Foxes interested me because the adult was not red; two of the kits were not red; and the two remaining kits were the typical Red Fox warm golden-red hue I’ve seen before (except in Alaska’s Denali National Park, where I saw a jet-black Red Fox).  The coloration here was varied in shades of dark gray and black and reddish ochre that is known as the “Cross Fox.”  There is a black line down the back and another black line that goes over the shoulders and down the legs; I suspect that when trappers skinned out a fox of this coloration and laid it out flat, the cross looked distinctive.

As I’m sitting here at the picnic table in the campground, I’m less than 100 yards from the fox den.  In fact, twice since I’ve been in camp an adult fox trotted by.  The second time, the fox was briefly curious enough to walk up hesitatingly and check me out from about 25 feet away.

I should mention the habitat.  In this sandy soil the tree cover consists mostly of Jack Pine, Paper Birch, and Bigtooth Aspens, with a lot of bracken and reindeer lichen as ground cover.

I’ll see what tomorrow morning brings.  [Note:  the next morning I saw a single young Cross Fox outside the den in a drizzle, with the others probably warm and dry inside.]

Also today I saw a pair of fresh Sandhill Crane tracks crossing a road.  I also saw a wet path roughly a foot wide crossing a road from wetland to wetland; I’m sure it was made by either a River Otter or a Beaver.

As I’m typing this at deep dusk, a whippoorwill is calling across the lake and mosquitoes are hovering around me with their incessant whine.  It is a chilly June evening, and I’m wearing a layer of down.

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.

June 12, 2008 Prehistoric Moments with a Living Fossil

 

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

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.

NEW JERSEY: The Jersey Bears

Everyone has seen Jersey barriers along the highway, but today I actually saw Jersey bears (and no, it’s not a minor league baseball team)!

While visiting the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, I stopped at the Kaiser Trailhead in New Jersey’s Worthington State Forest.  The Flowering Dogwood trees were at their peak of bloom, so the woods were filled with that wonderful white frost of blossoms, which contrasted with the spring green haze of emerging maple and oak leaves.  After I finished my dogwood photography, I was putting away my gear and preparing to drive away when I looked into the forest again and saw an American Black Bear foraging in a forest opening about 100 yards away.  Excited, I stopped stashing my equipment and instead pulled out the 500mm lens and 1.4x extender [this is a photographer’s blog, so I have to mention my equipment!].  Then I set about observing and taking a few photographs when the bear was most visible in the forest.

Then, much to my surprise, two young cubs appeared in the brush—they were accompanying their mother.  The mother was well aware of my presence, and I dared not get too close to her.  The cubs were more skittish, and I was unable to get any photographs of them.  The mother was keeping them on a long leash, so to speak, so they were not cuddling up to her but instead were foraging on their own.  I found the mother bear’s feeding behavior fascinating; she would walk up to a rock on the forest floor, and use her front feet and claws to lift the edge of it–looking underneath for any grubs or ants or anything else edible that might be hiding there.  There were plenty of rocks, as this trailhead was at the base of Kittatinny Mountain, which has a backbone of crumbly rock.  I observed one of the young bears working the rocks the same way–mother had already taught these young cubs well.  Eventually the bears ambled up the mountain and out of sight, but I was left with a thrilling and completely unexpected experience.

Earlier, a young man who I suspect is a recent immigrant from Russia, stopped to ask directions.  Accompanied by his mother, he had left the interstate looking for a gas station and instead ended up on this remote forest road.  He was from Ottawa, Canada, and was returning to Canada from a New York City road trip.  As we were talking, I pointed over his shoulder at the mother bear, which had gotten unexpectedly close.  He was startled and amazed, and said it was the first wild bear he had ever seen.  I think his mother, who remained in the car, was scared to death!

After I left that area, I stopped at Dunnfield Creek Natural Area and walked the Appalachian Trail–or at least 50 yards of it!  This is one of the access points along the great trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia.  Dunnfield Creek is noted for its crystal clear waters that support the fussy native Brook Trout, who are known for demanding clean water and refuse to inhabit anything else.  Some fish, and some people, demand only the best!

When I was visiting the campground at Worthington State Forest, I saw a petition to save the campground from the budget axe.  It seems that the governor of New Jersey plans to close nine of these state forest campgrounds around the state to save money.  The implication was that the state intends to privatize some of these campgrounds, and that would be a shame.

For several federal administrations I have seen the U.S. Forest Service steadily privatizing the operation of its campgrounds, and I’m not happy with the results.  The price immediately goes up (to cover the profit of the operator) and the service goes down.  At one such campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I found the bathrooms filthy and the water not turned on and the garbage cans removed, yet the price had gone up.  Why should we accept this?

When I visited Grand Teton National Park two years ago, I learned that they had privatized the national park campground where I normally stay.  I always enjoyed registering for camping and having informative conversations with the park rangers who staffed the office.  But with privatization the price had gone up and the people staffing the front desk could not answer my questions about the park.  Then one of their cell phones rang with one of those ugly musical ringtones and destroyed whatever good mood I had left.  Hey people, this is a national park, not a mall!  Learn about it so you can answer my questions and treat it with respect!

I guess the real problem is that America is failing to adequately fund the national parks and forests, and we are gradually seeing the fallout from that.  It is a shame to see Theodore Roosevelt’s great national forests and our heritage of great national parks fall into mediocrity.

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.