Saturday, September 21, 2013

TamCam Trail Camera

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Well, I was pretty happy to find that my very first camera-trap subject was a bobcat. That's gotta be a good omen for things to come. This guy walked through in the middle of the day, the same day I set out my new camera. I set the camera out last Sunday near a water trough, figuring the trail was unlikely to be used by hikers before I would return the following Saturday.

I was quite mistaken about that! A group of hikers stopped by and in the course of two minutes tripped 54 frames on the camera, which is set to fire off three fast frames then wait five seconds before being tripped again. The hikers obviously spotted the trail camera, but thankfully did not mess with it. 

The young coyote appears to have been enticed within range by something in the brush, but he never showed his face. 

Buck number one passed by in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. 

The info strip at the bottom of the frame can be turned off, but I like having it.

I wonder if it was birds that set off the camera a bunch of times, only to leave an empty frame. The camera will fire about 0.8 seconds after being triggered by movement, but I figure a bird can fly through too quickly even for such a brief delay. I caught this flicker as well as a junco (who set off numerous frames while hopping about in a tree before finally swooping toward the water trough -- a bathtub complete with rubber duckies), but I had a lot of frames with no animals at all. I suppose the wind-blown vegetation might also have set it off a few times.

This is buck number 2, who took this selfie in the wee hours of Friday morning. Both deer (and the coyote and bobcat) were caught in the fast three frames but were gone before the camera did its 5-second reset. 

I'd like to think this was an owl that swooped in really fast. The next frame shows just a tiny bit of the animal in the upper right corner (also blown out), and the third frame was empty. Rather than an owl, though, it's probably the same buck (note the time), moving toward the water trough.

It was raining when I returned to pick up the camera on Saturday morning. That's an umbrella in my left hand. I took the camera down and brought it back to the Jeep, swapped a new SD card for the old one, and set the camera in a new spot for the coming week. 

The camera is a Moultrie M-880 and costs about $150. Each image is an 8 megapixel JPEG, about 1MB in size. In just one week, I didn't even put a dent in the 32GB SD card I started with. I replaced it with my only other SD card, an 8GB, and I'm sure that'll be fine. The camera runs on eight AA batteries that will last for months.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Laurel Dell

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Fitting our time well and giving pause to our thoughts is Thoreau's admonition and despairing cry: "Most men, it seems to me, do not care for nature and would sell their share in all her beauty for a given sum. Thank God men have not yet learned to fly so they can lay waste the sky as well as the earth." Lines like these could not be illustrated, but they made me realize that illustration was not all I wanted to do. I hoped to be able to complement in feeling and spirit Thoreau's thinking one hundred years ago, and to show the peril we face even more today by our ever faster destruction of life not our own.
-- Eliot Porter, from the preface to In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, 1962

It has come to this -- that the lover of art is one, and the lover of nature another, though true art is but the expression of our love of nature. It is monstrous when one cares but little about trees and much about Corinthian columns, and yet this is exceedingly common.
-- Henry David Thoreau (from Porter's book), 1857

The Eliot Porter book quoted above is said to be the first book of color nature photography that was accepted by the art establishment (you know who you are). Before his book of scenes from New England forests came along in the company of Thoreau's then-100-year-old words, only black-and-white photography was considered artistic.


The book was the first of many for Porter, but this one is said to be his best. I got it from the library because I've been disappointed before by the print quality in color photography books from that long ago. Like Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter was a master printer who used the painstaking "dye transfer" process to make his prints. Unfortunately, the reproductions in this 50-year-old book don't do justice to his craft, but the book does at least give the flavor of Porter's style.

In order to catch the sunrise this morning I had to park the Jeep across the street from Bootjack, then pedal my bike up to Rock Spring and hike the last section which is closed to bikes. I got a bit of a late start -- it was already 6:20 when I started the bike leg -- and just made it. It was 56 degrees and windy, but even wearing just shorts and a t-shirt I was sweating from the flurry of exertion. By 7:00 a.m. (when the gate opens) it was all over, and I packed up for the trip back down to the truck.

There had been no morning fog in my neighborhood back in San Francisco despite waking up to wet streets every day for the last week. I'd been counting on fog for my sunrise shot and almost took some time to fix a real breakfast and go up to Mt. Tam a little later than usual -- or maybe not at all -- when I saw how clear the sky was. But as usual, I'm glad I decided to go. 

I got off my bike to fire off a few frames looking into the forest.

I finally got back to the Jeep, loaded my bike, and drove back up to Rock Spring to poke around a bit. I just got a relatively inexpensive Moultrie camera trap rig and was looking for someplace to set it up. A little after 8 o'clock, the ranger came up and opened the West Ridgecrest gate, and I slipped in right behind him to drive to my next stop, where I was greeted with a clear view over the Pacific.

This is what remains of the pet cemetery I reported on with my very first post. Whatever was buried in the shallow grave is gone.

It would have been nothing for a coyote to have dug it up, though it wouldn't have been much work for just about any critter that took an interest: coyotes can dig holes deep enough to sleep in. I was excited to see this good-looking chap, my first coyote of the blog-year.

I'd been telling myself to go down to Laurel Dell for a couple of weeks, so today I finally hiked down there. I had no idea what I might find -- it's still way too early to hope for migrating songbirds -- but I was thinking about Eliot Porter wandering around the New England woods, so I imagined he was along for company, and I just kept my eyes open for possibilities.

I finally abandoned my old 200mm Micro-Nikkor, the old Ai-S model. Though inexpensive to buy, it was never really sharp enough to suit me, and on the D800 it's what you might call a soft-focus lens. I find the 105mm AF-D to be a good, sharp stand-in. It's smaller and lighter than the pricey AF-D 200mm and easy to use on a focusing rail. 

As bright and nutritious as rose hips are, I wonder why critters haven't eaten them all by now.

Once I reached the bottom of the hill I decided to mosey down along the creekbed. I was surprised to find some small stones that someone had balanced to create little rock sculptures. I've been surprised quite a few times when I had the illusion that no one goes where I go, and I always enjoy the surprise as long as it's in the form of artwork or a track in the dirt as opposed to a plastic bottle or a clump of toilet paper.

Having just read the Eliot Porter book, I felt inspired to look for subjects and compositions in places I don't often explore.

Intimate landscapes. Anyone can appreciate a dramatic sunrise, but most of life takes place between the dramatic scenes. An excellent gift that anyone can acquire is to learn to appreciate the "haiku moments," the everyday fare that can touch our hearts and give a deeper sense of meaning to our lives than we get by simply accomplishing tasks. I once put together a booklet of "haiku photography," and a few of the haikus were published in Marin Magazine.

Even when the water's no longer flowing, a creek is a good place to be.

It was around 9:45 when I looked at my watch, feeling like a cloak of fatigue had been draped over my shoulder. I didn't actually make it to Laurel Dell proper, even though I was just a stone's throw away, but that's okay. I'll save it for another day....

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Beat the Heat

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"My impression is that the critique of, or at least the rethinking of, the whole business of the sublime and the beautiful in American landscape photographs began around the time of Robert Adams's The New West in 1974.... All of that work was read as a reaction against the work of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, against what might be called the Sierra Club photographers."
 -- Robert Hass, in What Light Can Do

On the recommendation of a friend, I went to the library to pick up Robert Hass's award-winning book, What Light Can Do -- Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World. (He recommended purchasing it so you can make notes in the margins and keep returning to it.) Much of it is too cerebral for me, but I'm still finding plenty worth perusing. The section on photographers includes an essay on Robert Adams, whose vision of nature never appealed to me before I saw the sample photos in this book and read what Hass has to say about them.

As I started shooting this morning, first pulling over to photograph the rising sun through the chaotic tangle of forest, and then stopping to pay attention to a lone, desiccated thistle, I imagined I was channeling a photographer with a very different aesthetic than my own. It was an interesting -- I hate to call it an exercise because it felt more natural than that -- but an interesting point of view to adopt. If we can observe our own egos, we have a chance to alter our habitual ways of seeing. We can loosen the reins and see the world anew.

I was surprised to find when I got home and processed my images that I actually liked the weird sunrise-through-the-forest, and even the lone thistle. But just west of the thistle, just a head-turn away, a scene was unfolding that pulled me right back into my usual pattern of seeing, which I also welcomed.

I've tried to break out of visual ruts before by doing photography in places like downtown San Francisco, or perusing the work of other photographers.

I knew I was on a roll with the whole business of rut-scuttling when I deigned to photograph the nasty invasive flower called yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis). "Better kicked than picked" is a term of endearment for certain inedible mushrooms, and I've always felt that way about star thistle: better pulled up by its roots than photographed. But at least the light was nice.

My plan for the day had been to park at Rock Spring and hike down to Laurel Dell to try to photograph migrating songbirds that might pass through that area since there's at least a little water and shade there. But after I'd hustled through the star thistle patch I realized the light was still pretty good on the larger landscape and explored the possibilities. It's been several weeks, maybe a couple of months or more, since I've had such a fog-free view back toward San Francisco.

This grandfather oak tree provided excellent shade and was turning out some very fat, green acorns.

This is the same tree, on the other side of the trunk.

Scruffy September stuff, with one of the big oaks in the background.

I'd been hoping to see the year's new flock of California quails and was treated to a covey foraging by the side of the road.

They were skittish, though, and took to the trees when I tried to approach.

Running this way.

And that way.

Looks so nice I have to shoot it twice.

My socks collected an incredible number of grass seeds while I followed these turkeys around.

I felt like I was having a pretty good day of photography despite the tyranny of expectations I'd imposed on myself before I left home. Here's how the tyranny of expectations works. It's a little after 5 a.m., and you're lying in bed trying to decide where you want to go to do some photography, and whether there actually is anyplace good since you've "seen it all before" and, by the way, it's going to be a scorcher of a day with temps in the 90s. 

That whole Zen thing about "beginner's mind" -- isn't that just a nice slogan, a clever quotation?

I don't know, but going up this morning without expectations worked so well that I'm afraid I'll jinx it just by talking about it. 

The thing is, I spend pretty much the whole workweek in downtown San Francisco on the fourth floor of a sealed, climate-controlled tower of steel and glass. Even if I didn't take my camera out of the bag, I'm still going to have a good day if I can get up to Mt. Tam on the weekend.

So I was poking around the internet the other day and found another Mt. Tam blog (see "Mt. Tam Links" on the sidebar). Like this one is going to be, it was a one-year project. I enjoyed scrolling through the pages, reading and taking note of various mountain-viewing vantage points.

By this time in my wanderings I'd circled back around to Cataract Creek (where the water striders are getting really nervous in their few remaining puddles) and put my ear to the woods. Chickadees, check. Juncos, check. Acorn woodpeckers, check. Not too much action on the migrant front, though. It was only about 9 a.m. -- I'd only been up there about two hours -- but it was already getting hot, and my t-shirt was soaked. I figured I might as well save Laurel Dell for another day.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Looking Back

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The south side of the mountain has its charms and adventures, but when you go over the hill you find the north side holds plenty of promise as well.

I took on this project -- photographing Mt. Tam for a year -- without giving it much thought. It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. I've been wandering around out there for twenty years, and I'd like to leave an homage to the mountain on the internet -- a medium that still seemed new and possibly useless back in the early '90s.

The project is turning out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. I don't want to shoot the same subjects I've shot before, but after twenty years I find it hard to believe I'll find any truly new subjects. I don't want to make photographs for the project that I've already made in the past, and when I see poison oak, for example, I think, "Oh, I've already photographed poison oak." 

I stopped at this location, by the way, to visit my nemesis grove -- trees that I assume to be non-native since I can't identify what species they are. I've never seen the flowers or the fruit. They are winter-deciduous and have interesting lichens growing on them that I've seen nowhere else. I brought home a leaf to help me find it in Marin Flora, but that wasn't enough. Still a mystery. [Update: My wife found a good candidate by thumbing through our Sierra Trees to find similar leaves, and I'm now pretty convinced the trees are Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia). They don't produce flowers until they're 30 years old, and even then not every year. They're in the southern limit of their coastal range at this location, but they can be found farther south in the Sierra Nevada.]

So I try to think about how to show what I already know, subjects such as wild honeysuckle berries that I've already photographed -- the low-hanging fruit -- in a new way. I try to get past the idea of simply trying to show a more-or-less literal translation of what a subject looks like and try to see the same subjects in a different light.

To see things differently, I find I'm often drawn to close-ups, which actually feels like coming full circle. When I took up nature photography in the early '80s, the subjects that drew me in were the wildflowers and waterfalls of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. They held a new kind of beauty and mystery to me. Or at least, I was experiencing the beauty and mystery of nature for the first time as an adult, and for the first time as a photographer with a little bit of education and training.

My First Cover, 1984

But the mountain always seems ready to spring something at least somewhat new. Sure, I've seen and photographed chorus frogs many times -- but not once before have I caught one sitting on a lily pad. It's hard to appreciate how small these guys are. The first one I saw this morning was entirely brown, clinging to one of the topmost leaves of a smartweed plant, and I mistook it for a small moth . . . until it hopped into some nearby horsetail plants.

The Lily Pond itself has changed quite a bit over the years. For a while there, the place was overrun with non-native bullfrogs, which eat native chorus frogs for breakfast. But a three-year drought killed off the interlopers, leaving the chorus frogs as kings of the lilies. Now, even the non-native lilies are losing ground to some kind of sedge that seems intent on taking over.

A few of the waterlilies were high and dry. Here, a new leaf forms at the base of a plant that's several feet away from the surface of the pond, along whose edge a pair of American robins darted their beaks at insects and other morsels too small for me to see.

I should remember this plant as "marsh buckwheat," though its common name is smartweed. It's in the buckwheat family, Polygonaceae, and is called Persicaria punctata. It, too, often grows in the water, but today I found this patch in a dry, shallow depression near Lily Pond (or Lily Lake, depending on your map) that was still a small pond when I last stopped by. It's tempting to relate every dry spell, every drought, forest fire or other calamity to "global warming" -- a term I was blissfully unaware of in the 1980s (when we were still worried about ozone holes, a problem we actually addressed and solved). But if nothing else, the changes that seem to be happening make a photography project like this seem at least a little more worthwhile. Will there still be a Lily Pond in 20 years?

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