Sunday, July 31, 2016

End O' July

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I just finished reading The Invention of Nature -- Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf, and I so enjoyed reading about this interesting naturalist that I also just picked up Humboldt's Cosmos by Gerard Helferich. Cosmos was the name of Humboldt's 5-volume magnum opus on the world of nature. He finished the first two volumes in 1847 but decided there was more work to do and wrote two more volumes before he died in 1859 at the age of 89 (the fifth volume was published posthumously). The San Francisco Public Library has a copy of Cosmos that can be viewed only in the library, and one of these days I'll have to make the pilgrimage.

Humboldt's work and ideas inspired many scientists, artists and other interesting people of his day, from Charles Darwin and Louis Agassiz to Frederic Edwin Church and George Catlin to Henry Thoreau and John Muir. He was greatly interested in America's new, free republic and was a friend of Thomas Jefferson (whom he admonished against slavery). If, like me, you've never really heard much about Humboldt -- whom King Friedrich Wilhelm IV dubbed "the greatest man since the Deluge" -- blame may go in part to World War I and the ensuing fear and loathing of everything German. Some 2,000 Germans, including 29 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, were sent to internment camps, and numerous German-owned businesses -- including woolen mills worth $70 million -- were seized.

I've been wondering what inspiration I can take from Humboldt's life, whether I could apply anything to my jaunts to Mt. Tam and other nearby locales. The way he looked at the world as a whole of interrelated parts was an inspiration to many, as were his exotic adventures in South America.

I still remember when Mt. Tamalpais seemed exotic to me, and I wouldn't mind getting that feeling again, if possible. There are many other places I'd like to explore, and I hope to have the ability to do so someday, but for the next few years I'm going to be content with photographing close to home. Even Humboldt had to spend many years -- decades, even -- simply making a living when he'd rather have been exploring.

Today I ventured out once again on the Matt Davis Trail. The grasses were still tall and bowed across the path, but this time the fog was much lower and the grass was dry as tinder. I didn't get wet at all, and it was actually quite sunny and warm. I was glad to have gotten out early, before the heat and bugs would become a nuisance. I wasn't sure I was actually still going to be interested in the backlit thistles that I enjoyed seeing when I recently hiked past here without my camera, but they were okay, if nothing to get too excited about, and I enjoyed the hike in any case.

This is a view down one of the ravines along the trail. I had to descend just a bit to get an unobstructed view. There was a second ravine I wanted to explore, even steeper, but I was too lazy to climb down into it. I find that I sometimes want the perspective of a longer lens, but holding that lens horizontally doesn't give me as much vertical coverage as I want, as was the case from this viewpoint using a 105mm lens. The solution (when there is little or no wind) is to hold the camera vertically and shoot several frames across the field to be stitched together as a panorama.

Getting back to the car I picked up my trail camera (where the water hole likely dried up two weeks ago; see my previous post), then drove down toward Stinson Beach to see if I could catch any fog beams. I was lucky to find a pull-out where the beams were coming through the forest canopy near a patch of showy flowers.

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Bear Cam

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"All the truly living, at least once, are born again."
--Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Beautiful Struggle

The live web cams from Brooks Falls are mesmerizing.

A sockeye salmon swims up from Bristol Bay to spawn in the Brooks River, a short run of water that drains Brooks Lake into NakNek Lake, but it's caught by a grizzly bear and never gets past the falls. Padding through the water with the determined fish still flapping its tail from between its teeth, the griz reaches an island of sand and pebbles. The bear sets down the salmon and, keeping one paw on its head, strips off sheets of skin and chews off chunks of flesh, tossing the pieces into its mouth to be swallowed.

The fish kicks in silence. The bear bites again. Skin peels off, the body of the fish is ripped apart by unstoppable jaws, but it somehow continues to flop on the ground under that giant paw. Even if the salmon somehow escaped at this point, what good would it do? Its drive to spawn is so powerful that even half-eaten, its will to press on upriver is undiminished.

The mercy of death finally comes to the salmon, and the bear turns back into the rushing river to catch its next meal. One of its cubs, still too green to catch its own fish, walks to the small pile of remains and eats what's left while attending gulls swoop in, hoping some little piece will float their way.

The bear feeds on the salmon without mercy. It is easier to see things from the bear's perspective than from the salmon's. To watch from the salmon's perspective is too awful to contemplate. We want to turn away, turn off our empathy before the fact of the salmon's violent death sinks in too far, becomes indelible. But to become among the truly living, we have to surrender to the larger story and experience what we thought was too awful to bear. If we can set just one foot through that door, we will see that it wasn't too awful to bear. Indeed, we will enter a new world, rich with possibility.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer Fog

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I started hiking this morning on a thin dirt trail on the windward side of Bolinas Ridge. Visibility was probably around 100 feet, and the trail was covered by a golden-brown archway of knee- to hip-high grasses -- all of them heavily burdened with dew. My legs, shorts, and shoes and socks became completely soaked in very short order, and I had a long way to go. I stopped to take stock while a cold wind blew and reluctantly decided that to continue, to insist on reaching my intended destination, was untenable.

I was glad I hadn't brought my wife up to hike the route I did last week -- Pantoll to Stinson Beach via the Matt Davis Trail, then back up via Steep Ravine. It was foggy last week, but it was a relatively dry fog, with no dew-soaked grass or dripping forests. In fact, the morning light had been beautiful at a particular point along the trail, and my plan this morning had been to hike out to the same spot with my camera.

I've been taking a bit of a break from blogging and other online activities and have been making a few prints to better enjoy the fruit of my labor. I've made a few 8x12 and 16x24 metal prints, four 24x36 glossy prints mounted on gator board, and a 20x80 glossy panorama that I simply tacked to the wall. They all look great, if I do say so myself.

Something weird has been going on with the blog since around the beginning of summer. I'm not a stat-hound or anything, but I've noticed over the years that I tend to get around 30-50 pageviews a day. All of a sudden I'm getting 1,000 to 1,200 pageviews a day, and it's been going on like this for weeks.

Lots of bicyclists on the mountain this morning, and they were getting a nice little soaking as they passed beneath the redwoods on Bolinas Ridge. Reminded me that the Tour de France riders are about to climb into Switzerland. My camera and I got pretty soaked while I made a few compositions in the rainy forest. I headed home with my shoes and socks still soaked, about four hours after they first got that way.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Solstice Sunset

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On June 11, two weeks before summer officially arrived, Mt. Tam experienced a ridiculously early "red flag" fire hazard day that closed the mountain and forced cancellations of both the Mountain Play and the Astronomy Program. This evening the only fire in the sky showed courtesy of the most incredible summer solstice sunset I can remember. As I biked home from work I thought the clouds looked promising for a nice sunset, but I perished the thought. San Francisco doesn't get great sunsets in the summertime.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Palomarin Reef

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If you haven't been out to photograph on the reef in a while, as is true in my case, the reality of doing so takes very little time to catch up with the fantasy. The fantasy is that the reef is going to be teeming with interesting plants and critters. The reality is that one's poor eyesight is going to make a trial out of seeing any of it. If only there were more critters like the Hopkin's Rose nudibranch to bring fantasy and reality a little closer together. Despite its small size (~ 2 cm) even I could see this guy from twenty meters away.

Other than a raccoon, whose tracks I could just make out, and a possible bobcat, whose freshly twirled scat in the center of the thin trail marked its passing, I was the first large mammal to make it to the beach this morning. Sometimes you can tell you're the first to pass because you get a face full of fresh spider webs, but I could tell this morning because I was collecting all the dew as I hiked along the overgrown path. By the time I made it down to the beach I was completely soaked from the hips on down. For the last hundred yards, I could barely see the trail at my feet. Poison oak wasn't a problem, but watch out for the stinging nettles.

In looking for a new direction to occupy myself on weekends, I thought it might be fun to really learn about the reef -- get to know all the usual suspects, both plant and animal. I know that this will not be easy, and I wonder if I can stick with it. I thought it might help to think about how best to photograph the variety of species, and I sort of punted the idea down the road, thinking that I really need an aquarium for staging my images. Otherwise, how do you tease out the identifying characteristics of a mat of algae into a pleasing image? After this morning, I am certain only that more thought will be required.

This was one of two bat stars I saw on the reef. Both were on the small side, definitely not full-grown. I also saw several Pisaster sea stars, all of which were blandly ochre-colored, and one of which looked like it was in the process of succumbing to wasting disease.

In the Introduction to The Intertidal Wilderness, Anne Wertheim Rosenfeld writes, "In their natural habitat many sea anemones are calculated to be at least five hundred years old." She gives no reference for that statement, and I can't find anything online to back it up, but at least some cnidarians (a group that includes sea anemones) are said to be immortal, showing no sign of senescence even after many years.

In order to make things easier, I brought my camera and only one lens, a 105mm macro. Nevertheless, it is never truly easy to photograph on the reef. I bloodied my knees as I pressed closer to the nudibranch while a hermit crab scuttled by (they seemed to ignore each other as best they could, like a Muni passenger squeezing by to get off at the Civic Center). Tripod legs don't anchor as easily as they do on dry land either, what with the uneven and slippery surfaces, and not to mention the little aggregating anemones who don't appreciate getting a tripod foot planted in their gullets.

This nudibranch was in the same tidepool as the Hopkin's Rose. I'm sure I'd never have noticed it if I hadn't already been drawn close by the bubblegum 'branch. There was a second specimen at the bottom of the pool, but it stayed put, well out of range. A critter this small needs to be very close to the surface to be photographed well. If it's more than an inch deep, especially on a windy day (there were small craft warnings in effect today) the distortion will be awful. This 'branch is known from Duxbury Reef south (Palomarin Beach is north of, but basically contiguous, with Duxbury Reef).

One novelty of the morning was having direct sunlight on the reef. Not only did I drive all the way to the beach after sunrise -- a novelty in itself -- but I had abundant natural light and no fog. Nevertheless, it was breezy and cool, and sometimes I couldn't see well enough to compose an image because of watering eyes and a sniffling nose.

Brilliant camoflage. Like sparrows gleaning seeds along the trail, you don't even notice them unless they move.

Although I wandered around quite a bit, I ended up returning the way I'd come and chanced to find the very same Hopkin's Rose I'd photographed earlier. It was now completely exposed to the air, the water level several inches below. It had taken up residence in a shallow hole in the rock and looked like some kind of anemone.

Low tide didn't last long. It was a minus tide with a minimal swell, but the reef was only well-exposed for about an hour on either side of the low.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Changing Seasons

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I was surprised to arrive at the gate so early -- a good fifteen minutes before 7 a.m. -- to find a bunch of cars parked and waiting for the gate to be opened. There were eight cars parked in front of the gate before the ranger arrived and made it nine, plus me and two cars behind me across the street. Turns out we weren't all eager hikers or crazed photographers, but mostly folks there to get things ready for opening day of the Mountain Play.

I joined the convoy up the mountain and pulled out at Sunset Point. The light was gorgeous. I wish I had space on my walls to print and mount this 30x60-inch panorama. It's been a few weeks since I was up there, and it was interesting to see so much golden grass with just a hint of green left in it. Also, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge I'd noticed quite a few small fishing boats motoring out the bay toward the gate, and from this vantage point I could see many more at sea off Stinson Beach. Zooming into the details in this picture I counted 56 vessels, some at anchor and others leaving a wake.

There was lots of activity at Rock Spring as crews got ready to direct the crowds that would be arriving later for the play, but the trail was quiet as I hiked down toward Laurel Dell -- quiet enough to find a still-sleeping flower longhorn beetle on these mule ears. Quiet enough to enjoy the trilling of Pacific wrens and the skittering of Wilson's warblers foraging among the sword ferns.

Quiet enough to do some thinking about my next photography project, too, something I've been thinking about almost since I moved to California to go to photography school back in the early '80s. Unfortunately, I'm still seven or eight years away from being able to carry out my project because it will require much more time than I can devote to it right now.

Until then, I'll need to stay in shape both physically and photographically, and trust that I'll still want to do it when the time comes!

Which came first: the spring robin or the sprung robin?

Jewels in the serpentine.

Rock Spring at about 9 a.m.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Camera Trapping Project


Just read in the Marin IJ about this big camera trapping project. It's funny because I've spotted a couple of camera traps on Mt. Tam and often found myself looking for them as I've hiked around the mountain. The Marin Wildlife Picture Index Project has been collecting images on more than 100 camera traps since late 2014, in several Marin County parks. Volunteers are needed to catalog images (done during the workday, alas; see May 19, 24, June 2, 16) and maintain the traps (swap out batteries and memory cards).

I was interested to read that they lay out the camera traps without an eye for likely areas such as animal trails, den areas, streams or water holes: "The WPI utilizes motion-activated wildlife cameras that are positioned along a grid at regular intervals across a large area. The grid provides non-biased sampling locations...." Nevertheless, some cameras are positioned along trails, as the image of the mountain lion shows. I'm not sure why a grid bias is preferable to a habitat bias, but it is kind of surprising to see images from fairly random-looking vantage points -- a benefit of operating dozens of cameras over a long period of time.

I'd started my own project about a year before this one got under way, but my efforts were about satisfying my own curiosity about what animals might turn up in various locations that I had a definite bias for. The data are in bits and pieces and show no complete picture of anything, but they were always fun to collect.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ring Mountain

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When I woke up and saw more than just a wall of fog out my window I decided to take a crack at catching a sunrise up on Ring Mountain. This is the blueschist boulder with the petroglyphs on it (and a few nasty scratches made by obligatory idiots). San Francisco is in the distance to the right.

Unfortunately, the sunrise never really went off, color-wise. This is the view through a 300mm lens.

I hiked up in the dark, using a headlight to see the rocky trail and holding a small flashlight for the darker stretches where the trail was covered by trees. Coyotes yipped across the hillside to the east. The petroglyphs that give Ring Mountain its name were hard to see in the dim, diffuse light. 

I gave up on catching good light at the petroglyph site and started to poke around to look for the Tiburon mariposa lilies. I've only been up there a few times and I couldn't remember exactly where they were, so I hiked higher and farther west than I needed to, but I didn't care because I also wanted to see Mt. Tam. The clouds were thick around the mountain, and when I drove over there later on I needed to run the windshield wipers a few times.

This was about as colorful as the sunrise got. A bit of a gale was blowing on the ridge.

I don't often see Indian pink since it doesn't grow on the parts of Mt. Tam or Pt. Reyes that I usually explore. I've seen it near Alpine Lake, though. The flowers were low to the ground and partially in the lee of the wind, surrounded mainly by poison oak, but I managed to get one half-decent shot without too much movement.

I'm always glad to finally stumble upon the rare Tiburon mariposa lilies (Calochortus tiburonensis). They don't grow in profusion, but they do stand out.

With the wind less of an issue at this elevation I was able to run off a couple of focus stacks on the amazing, hairy corollas.

The sun peaked out for just a minute, casting the only shadow of the morning.

These two little California ringlets were resting together in the grass, clinging to soaproot buds. They were extremely accommodating as I moved in closer and closer, and they were still just like this when I finally walked away.

I was surprised on my way back down to the car when I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 7:40 a.m. I could have stayed longer and tried to photograph the many wildflower species, but my heart wasn't in it. Had the morning been still and heavy with dew, I might have felt differently.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day

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I always set my clothes and camera gear out in the living room the night before I anticipate leaving on one of my weekend photo safaris while my wife is still sleeping. I tell myself the night before that I might not go. I might decide to sleep in. After all, who wants to get up at 4:30 in the morning on a weekend after getting up early the whole workweek? But then I do wake up, and if it's 3 o'clock or 4:30 I think, "I'll bet I can get out to Point Reyes in time for sunrise." I just can't go back to sleep after I think that.

My plan this morning was to reach Limantour Beach by sunrise. The weather was clear and calm, and I thought I might find a big bloom of bush lupines like I found around this time last year, only last year the sky had been heavily overcast.

As I drove into view of Black Mountain before sunrise I fell in love with the layers of fog over Nicasio Reservoir and had to decide whether to stick to the plan or accept this gift of serendipity. 

I was glad I chose Door Number 2 because Limantour had nothing much going on. As I walked out toward the beach I spotted an elk way off in the distance, walking in shallow water along the shore of the little estero to the northwest. It was kind of silhouetted in front of bright water behind it. I rushed to set up my tripod and get a long lens on the camera, but I only got one frame off before the elk disappeared from view, and even in the frame I got the elk was no longer in just the right spot to make the shot. I would love to get an elk-in-water shot sometime.

I actually thought about heading home but decided to check out a meadow near Muddy Hollow instead. I walked out there in flip-flops and enjoyed the cold dew on my bare feet. There still wasn't any wind, so I was able to make some focus-stacked landscapes that I was pretty happy with.

I wish the blog allowed me to post larger images. I've been posting a few shots on Flickr recently, just to be able to show bigger pix. It'd be even more awesome to have a place where photographers could show large prints in real life. If I ever win the Lottery I promise I'll open up a gallery for people to show their work big and IRL.

So it's May 1st. Supposed to rain again next week, which is cool. Keep it coming.

I got my first tick of the season yesterday.

Which got me thinking abut ticks quite a bit while I was out in the Muddy Hollow meadow.

Especially when I was literally flat out on the soaking ground, my chin and cheek in the grass as I tried to peer through the viewfinder at this neat little flower.

Back at the Muddy Hollow parking lot I noticed what I first thought was a blackberry bramble, then realized that what I was seeing were the berries that Jane Huber had mentioned last year. I had been on the southern end of the trail though and missed out. They're still a bit early, but there were several ripe Pacific salmonberries to be plucked. There I was, eating a banana and a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich (with delicious rhubarb jam we bought last week in Mendocino), and tossing a fresh vine-picked berry in my mouth every few bites. Sweet.

I found this great little spot full of ferns and stopped to make a few photographs. Check out this black-and-white version I posted on Flickr.

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