Saturday, February 27, 2010

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

I love snow. And I have as long as I can remember. My oldest memory of snow is being in our yard with the snow up to my waist (drifts no doubt); the yard was new and different. I couldn't wait to explore this curiously changed place. Later I remember sledding down Highland Ave, the road I grew up on, for hours and hours. I'd run and jump on my sled, following the line of neighborhood kids down the road. Snowballs would bombard the cars that dared to interrupt our fun. My memories are full of snowy winter days, many more than we get today. I know it's warmer now, as the bay never freezes over as it did when I was young.

My parents still live in that house on Highland Ave, but the snow of recent past doesn't cover the road for sledding (and few kids live in the old neighborhood, we've all grown and moved away). Until this year that is, as there have been several snowstorms of 12" or more.

My friends think I'm nuts, but I was truly bummed that I missed the two blizzards which hit the east coast of the US, being off on my annual Florida pilgrimage. (They also think I'm nuts for other reasons we won't go into here ...) But I really was disappointed, having missed wandering in the solitude of the freshly fallen snow (and perhaps snapping a picture or two). Alas, I only got to see the aftermath, the dirty plow piles in parking lots and along the side of the road.


Several years ago I discovered the work of Ken Libbrecht and the beauty of snow crystals, via his wonderful book, The Snowflake, Winter's Secret Beauty. And I've been trying to get snowflake pictures like his ever since. 

To do so I need it to be snowing (duh!), to have a camera handy (usually not a problem), and have the time to shoot (i.e., not be at work). That happened today. As I was heading out this morning to run some errands I noticed the flakes were large, perhaps as large as a quarter inch. So it was back inside to grab my camera and ...

... I got this (as always, click to bigafy). The snow crystals are on the window of my car, and I'm inside shooting out. (Note the six pointed water drop in the upper right.)

I was shooting with a DSLR, a Canon 50D, and a 100 mm macro lens. Autofocus was not working, the camera wanting to focus through the window, not on it. And, as evidenced by the melted flake, the temperature was such that the flakes did not last long.

It was also a bit windy, so the flakes often broke on impact. There's plenty of snowflake shrapnel in these images.

The wind and the melting resulted in the flakes sliding down the window, further complicating focusing.

As it continued to warm up the flakes started to clump together. And as you can see from the water drops, flakes were spending less and less time on the window. Perhaps I was warming things up sitting inside the (not running) car?

The clumping continued and I got a few more keepers. But the clumps tended to impact harder, resulting in more shrapnel. The end was near.

This is a mostly melted flake, a "skeleton" flake. If you look closely you can see hints of its former glory. By now, the flakes were essentially melting on impact. By the time I got the camera on the flake and focused these skeletons were all that was left.

So I put the camera down, and finally drove off to do my errands.

I had fun taking these shots. They aren't great images. But they are good enough to show (what's that cliche about a talking dog?).

(Click here to see another example of my snowflake imagery skills.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Big Out There

I've been to the Grand Canyon once, in 2006. And I made quite a few pictures (most not worth showing). Three of my favorites are shown above. A colleague recently visited and she was showing me her pictures today at work.


My first trip out west was in 1996 as my brother and I drove from Kansas City, Missouri to San Mateo, California (he was moving). We took our time and wandered, having no set agenda, along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska into Wyoming. Colorado was next (stopping at Steamboat Springs for couple of days at friends). Then Utah, stopping at Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, and Zion national parks. We passed through Vegas on our way to California, visiting Death Valley and Lake Tahoe. And I was hooked.

It is just gorgeous out there.

And big. Everything is really big.

As we drove into Zion I spied a boulder which had fallen off a cliff face. As we got closer it got bigger. And bigger. And bigger. That boulder is bigger than my office building.

My brother in front of the "small" boulders at Monument Valley

I was out west again in 1998. And I worked in California for just over three years, 1999 - 2002 (I commuted from New Jersey; I'm down to ~26,000 frequent flyer miles, from a high of 900,000+). I spent a week with my brother in Moab, Utah hiking about Arches and Canyonlands in 2002. I drove from Spokane, Washington to back to New Jersey that year with my dad, visiting, among others, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Badlands national parks. My first visit to Yosemite was in 2003, my second in 2007. I visited Arizona in 2006, 2007, and 2008, wandering all about the state. 2008 also found me driving down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego and later visiting Joshua Tree national park. In 2005 I was in Washington and Idaho.

Sunset in Saguaro National Park

2009 was the first year in in over a decade that I did not spend any time out west.

I did spend a week in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, but that was at a resort, not wandering about in the great outdoors. It's not the same.

I miss it. I miss wandering in the desert. Or the mountains. Or among the giant trees.

Spring snow in Yosemite

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Head Shots

As mentioned below, the wildlife at the Everglades National Park is quite approachable.

White Ibis

Wood Stork


Great Blue Heron

(As always, click on an image to bigafy.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Emerald Eyes

A young double-crested cormorant at the Everglades, where, as you can no doubt gather from my posts, the wildlife is rather accessible. And if you go in the winter there's no mosquitos!

(Click the image to bigafy.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Whew this was a nightmare, the Winter Star Party from hell, much worse than the Fire Ant attack years ago (same leg).” - Jim Sweeny

Groggily throwing off my dreams, I’m awakened by shouting, “Hey, turn those white lights out! This is a star party.” Huh, who’s observing in gale force winds and a torrential downpour? “Just give me ten minutes, ten minutes and I’ll be ok.” Ten minutes of light? What’s Jim up to? “Somebody call 911!” Whoa, I’m awake now.

I climb out of my car and stumble over to all the commotion. My first words, “Jimmy, get to a fucking hospital!”.


Flash back a couple of hours ...

“AAANT! AAANT! AAANT! This is NOAA all hazards radio with a emergency bulletin. A severe storm warning has been issued for the lower keys, including Key West and Marathon until 6:45 PM ...”

The weather radio alerted us to a squall line rapidly approaching from Florida Bay. Lighting, heavy rain, waterspouts (cool!), hail, and winds of 60 MPH or more.

This is not good.

On the last day of the 2008 Winter Star Party, as we were all packing up to leave, a similar squall, with somewhat less intense wind gusts, had literally blown my tent inside out. Destroying two of the four tent poles in the process. No way my tent would survive 60+ MPH winds.

Less than an hour to prepare. And most of our companions had gone off to dinner or shopping or to be tourists in the Keys. (Dave, Jim, and I had just returned from dinner.) Dave elected to completely take down his tent and sleep in the back of his rented minivan that night. Jim and I decided to lower our tents, presenting less surface area to the winds. We both used chunks of coral rock to weigh down the tents, lest the wind lift them up and send them to Cuba.

Jim’s Tent (note coral block in just right of center)

This was a fateful decision.

We then went about stowing anything and everything that could fly about in our area, running for the relative shelter of our vehicles when the rain started.

Storm Front Is Here!

The rain and lightning and wind came (no hail or waterspouts though). Some tents collapsed, stuff blew around, and tents filled with water. But, perhaps because of that half hour we had to prepare, it was mostly a non-event.


Back to the present ...

Jimmy was bleeding. Badly. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house (or the camp, as were the case) and the Winter Star Party has a Monroe County Sherif’s Deputy on site 24/7 for the duration. And they were both attending to Jim.

I'm certified in wilderness first aid (or at least I was, I probably need to re-certify). But I was relieved that my rusty skills would not be tested. So I went and got my camera (hey, it's what I do).

Not for the faint of heart, click here to see just how much blood.

911 had been called, and help was on the way (I could hear the sirens).


Lots of sirens. First a pickup truck came in. First aid first responder. Ok.

Then a fire truck. A fire truck?

Then the rescue vehicle (a big ambulance).

Then an SUV.

Four vehicles. There was a lot of blood and all, but did we really need four vehicles? And what did they plan to do with the fire truck?

Close Encounters of the Coral Kind


They patched Jim up and loaded him on a stretcher for the ride to the hospital in Marathon.

Stretching Out

Soon he was good to go and in seeming good spirits.

I’m Good!

They then took fifteen or so minutes to figure out how to get all those vehicles out of the camp. All the while we stood around trying to figure out what the fire truck was for. Never did come up with a good answer.


Remember that coral? Here’s a picture, taken the next morning. The brownish stains are dried blood.

The Coral, Winner and Still Champion

While reassembling his tent, Jim dropped his flashlight (and his backup light was packed away). And while moving around in the dark, he re-encountered that “big #*&^%$ piece of coral".

With disastrous results.

He needed twenty plus stitches. Two different antibiotics (apparently coral cuts are nasty). And he lost a big chunk of skin, which may require a graft. Ouch.

But Jim was all patched up and in good spirits Saturday morning.

All Patched Up

That’s a big bandage. And yeah, that’s blood on the ground.

But with his breakfast cigar and pepsi, Jim is back in form. And he says, “I’ll be back”.

The rematch is scheduled for one night during the week of February 1st, 2011. Be sure to get your tickets early.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Obvious, Unseen

My friend Laura (who is currently hosting the blog carnival, I and the Bird (go see!)) recently wrote a lyrical piece about our owling excursion entitled Of owls and seeing, in which she discusses how difficult it can be to spot an owl and how she personally is finding her distance vision (and thus faraway birds) deserting her.

My distance vision deserted me in ninth grade, and I've worn glasses, now contacts, ever since.

But she knows that there are owls (and other birds) out there to be found. A wondrous avifauna worth seeking out and marveling in. Sadly many people are not only not interested in birds, they don't even realize they are out there waiting to be seen. A form of conceptual blindness which diminishes their world. My world was once so constricted as well.


Avoiding (barely) the blizzard that hit the north east coast of the US this past week, I made what has become my annual pilgrimage to the Florida Keys for the Winter Star Party. A 1400+ mile journey one way to stargaze in shorts and t-shirts in February. Combining hobbies I stop each year and bird the greater Everglades region. And I take pictures, photographing birds ...

... beasts ...

... and stars.

This trip I got a jump on two of the three at a gas station in Port St. Lucie, Florida.


As I was leaving the gas station I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes on the side of the road.

I quick snapped a photo with my iPhone as I waited at the stop light. I made a u-turn straightaway and headed back, hoping the birds would still be there. They were. I then rushed to get out my camera gear, buried beneath my astronomy and camping stuff (poor planning!), hoping the birds would not fly. They did not and I was rewarded with images like this one:

But as I watched and photographed the cranes I also noticed that no one else did. That is, no one noticed the rather large birds feeding just feet from the road. None of the passing cars slowed to look. None of the other customers at the busy gas station spied the birds or the curious character photographing them. No children pointed. I saw them because I am always looking, aware that birds (and other interesting things!) can show up anywhere. Most people don't think to look because they're unaware that there are things to look for. They've that conceptual blind spot. For them animals, especially rare animals, occur only in tropical rain forests and African jungles. Faraway places, certainly not gas stations in suburbia.

When I was a kid I watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom every Sunday. And I was always bummed that we didn't have and big animals in our back yard, only stupid birds!

I was alone in my enthusiasm and wonder.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, his eyes are closed." - Albert Einstein, What I Believe, 1930

Perhaps the people of Florida have become so inured to large birds being about (on this trip my road list included herons, egrets, wood storks, ibis, and a fly over roseate spoonbill (and my life armadillos!)) they've become dulled to their presence. But I've found the same unawareness other places as well. On a recent workday lunch outing I pointed out a great blue heron hunting along a stream near my office. A colleague noted that he had never seen one before. Another asked if they were rare in New Jersey. I've a short (~ eight mile) commute and I see them regularly. Why doesn't everyone?


I noted above that I was once unaware of the wonders all around me. I briefly discussed how I started birding in my Portrait blog post. Before becoming aware I knew the birds in my neighborhood to be bluejays, cardinals, robins, and sparrows (every little bird not of the first three was a 'sparrow'). Since becoming aware my world has become a much larger place, with many new co-inhabitants to discover an delight in. (To say nothing of new friends.)

I've since become a world bigafication junkie, studying amongst others, plants, insects, and even snowflakes. My world expanding with each.

I'm sure my friends would tell you I've got my own conceptual blind spots, ("Paging Captain Oblivious"). I suspect we all do. But how many of us realize this? How many know that there is a handicap to overcome?

"What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener. Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?" - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968


It was the bird, specifically a pair of gulls and a little yellow jobbie, that helped make me cognizant of the wider world around me. And birds continue to bring me pleasure as I observe and photograph them, as well as enjoy the company of like minded people. They are out there and easily seen. Won't you go look?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Self Portrait, with Alligator

From my recent trip to the Everglades. Yes, the alligators are that close (I had to back up as I was using a long lens).

(As always, click on the image to bigafy it.)