Archive for California

Death Stalks on Silent Wings

Posted in Natural History, Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2015 by chamimage

Owl Silhouette

I was staying in Klamath Falls, photographing owls and bald eagles, at the Klamath Wildlife Refuges when I read in the newspaper that we had an owl problem back home in Salem, Oregon.

Around mid-January a jogger (local surgeon) running at 5:15 am in a city park was hit in the back of his head with what he assumed was a two by four. Looking around he saw nothing. Later, it was determined that he was attacked by a barred owl (Strix varia). Three other joggers have had the honor of repeating his experience since then. All have been running before dawn or after sunset, basically pretty dark out there. One jogger lost his favorite Nike cap and never got it back.

It was assumed the owl is nesting nearby and is protecting its territory, but no nest has ever been found to my knowledge.

I went to the park when I got back to find the owl in question and was not successful. Nobody has seen it in the day time so maybe it is roosting or nesting away from the park and only hunting squirrels there in the dark. I did notice a paucity of squirrels. Maybe he tired of having to chase joggers off and gave up and moved out.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

I don’t have any images of a barred owl. They are relatively new to Oregon, being a bird of eastern forests. Their presence here in Oregon has been problematic in other ways. Remember in the 1990’s when the northern spotted owl was listed as endangered and old growth forest logging was essentially shut down to protect the spotted owls? Those same spotted owls are now being decimated and will likely go extinct due to the invasion of barred owls into their territory. They are similar owls in many respects. Both feature black eyes. The barred owls are more aggressive and are out-competing and driving out the spotted owls. The Forest Service now has a trial program of killing barred owls in northern California to see if it has any effect on the spotted owls and is feasible. 3,600 barred owls will be shot. The biologist involved described this as a classic Sophie’s Choice, deciding who will live and who will die when there is no clear fairness in the result.

The image directly above is of an owl I found early in the day when the sun was behind him. I came back in the evening when I knew he would be front-lit. I got near to his position, but there was a car behind me so I stopped at a porta pottie so as not to leads other to him and burden his life with too many people knowing of his location. To my dismay, when I came out of the latrine the driver behind me had not only seen the owl and stopped (I suspect he already knew he was there as well) but his stopping had created an owl jam with three other cars stopped. At that point I gave up on the stealth approach and drove up and got my images. Instead of a quick shot out the window of my car turned into stopping and putting the camera on the tripod. He obviously wasn’t going anywhere. By that time there were six cars stopped.

The title of this post refers to the silent flight of owls, which is unique. It hardly seems fair that they hunt at night and are completely silent in flight. They pay for the silent flight with feathers that are not able to repel water. Apparently you can be water-resistant or silent, but not both. Another fact I learned from Nature last week is that an owl’s feathers weigh more than its skeleton. Hollow bones.

At the Klamath wildlife refuge a biologist said that one morning when they came to work they found the head of a barn owl on the sidewalk. At first they thought they were victim to a boyhood prank, but later decided that it was a gift from a resident great horned owl. Owls like to behead their prey before eating them (perhaps they can’t digest the relatively dense skull?) and in the case of great horned owls they tend to spread body parts about their territory, probably for the same reason gangsters put horse heads in people’s beds.

Sunset

Sunset

The owl silhouette at the top was taken in one of these trees a few minutes later.

A good reference book on owls I “Owls of the United States and Canada” written by my friend Wayne Lynch.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Saw-whet Owl

Saw-whet Owl

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You Can Never Go Back

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by chamimage
Sunrise on Tule Lake NWR

Sunrise on Tule Lake NWR

One of my goals for my trip to the Kalamath Basin a couple of weeks ago was to see if I could get a second chance at this landscape. I like the look and feel of it, but it is not sharp. I took about ten exposures and none of them were sharp. I am pretty sure I left the vibration reduction turned on on my 70-200 mm lens when I used it on the tripod – guaranteed to be blurry.

Sometimes I go through a mental check list in my head when I think a photograph may be really good. I call it the “What could I possibly be doing to totally screw this up?” list. I obviously didn’t bother on this particular morning. Probably not enough caffeine yet.

On the first morning in the refuge I headed for my landscape photo with a laser focus.

Lower Klamath NWR Sunrise

Lower Klamath NWR Sunrise

Then I stumbled onto this on the way. I figure an image on the compact flash card is worth two in the bush so I stopped.

Tule Lake Sunrise

Tule Lake Sunrise

Then I found this. Another bird in the hand.Of course by now the sun was too high for the landscape I had in mind. Maybe tomorrow.

I was back out early the next morning and almost made it to my destination…

Sunrise_Tulelake

Sunrise_Tulelake

I found this. Another bird in hand. I was close enough to my destination to realize that the conditions for the first photo above were not going to replicate themselves. The fog was consistently setting up altogether differently this year. You can never go back. That’s why you need the mantra the first time, “What could I possibly be doing to totally screw this up?”

One of my favorite quotes is from the late Galen Rowell ( a lot of my favorite quotes are from Galen Rowell so if you haven’t read his books, you should). He said “If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better, shoot it again.” Meaning don’t trade your bird in the hand for a possibly prettier bird later. It may rain for days on end. The tree you are photographing may fall down.

Lakeside Snag

Lakeside Snag

I had shot this tree the year before from the same spot. I almost didn’t take this photograph because I already had one I was very happy with. But I was standing there with the camera and the tripod and it was just stupid not to take the photograph. It was better than my previous one. “If it looks better, shoot it again.”

Fallen

Fallen

And then it fell down. Nothing lasts forever, especially old rotting snags.

Tangentially speaking, Malheur Lake (technically it is a marsh) is so shallow that the lake expands and contracts dramatically from year to year based on rainfall, which differs markedly from year to year in the southeastern Oregon desert. This creates a significant shoreline area during drought years. This area of shoreline came into dispute during the Peter French cattle baron era in the late 1800’s. The cattle baron claimed he owned all of the land. The squatters in the community of Narrows (where this tree stands; it may have been planted by those settlers) that sprang up claimed that he only owned to the high water mark and that the land between the high water mark and the actual lake was up for grabs. I guess they assumed the lake would never fill up to the high water mark ever again? Anyway it all got so hotly contested that Peter French was shot dead by one of the homesteaders in the contested area. Some say that man just drew the short straw and was assigned to be the assassin. Others say he didn’t draw the short straw, but volunteered, anyway. He was not a nice man, but he was acquitted of the murder by a jury of his peers, mostly because his wife and baby would probably starve to death without him. He then wandered away, leaving his wife and baby to face a grim future alone. I love history.

Klamath Day 4 – Little Wing

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by chamimage
Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

This little fellow above took up the better part of my afternoon today. I found him on my way to eat my lunch and take a much-anticipated nap. It did not take great powers of observation to find him, he hopped across the road in front of my car.

I pulled over and walked back to see what the hell just hopped across the road in front of my car, and to take a photo of it, and to see why a bird was hopping instead of flying. I was greeted by the sweet face you see above. He was sitting in the ditch with no visible injury, but he was beside the road and couldn’t fly so a broken wing from colliding with a car was the most obvious probability.

I hopped back in my car and drove the short distance back to the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. The uniformed man behind the desk  said since it was Sunday he was the only staff in the whole refuge and he obviously couldn’t help me in any way. He suggested I capture the owl and drive it to some wildlife rehab place. I guess I had thought that the welfare of the wildlife on the refuge was their job.

I wasn’t sure about the legalities of scooping up a raptor from a refuge and transporting him across state lines. Technically, though, the owl was about 200 feet outside the refuge. The problem was I didn’t know where to take him and I didn’t have a crate to transport him in and didn’t think driving 40 miles back to Klamath Falls with him wrapped in a coat was a good idea.

I approached some birders and they were also surprisingly apathetic about an injured owl. One of them did say over his shoulder as he walked away that I should call Badger Run Wildlife Rehab in Klamath Falls. At least that gave me a place to start.

I found the number for Badger Run and called and told them about the owl. “No problem, someone will be right out.” No problem? Driving forty miles on a Sunday afternoon to help a little tiny owl based on my sketchy, non-resident directions? I kinda liked their attitude.

While waiting I checked on the owl and the little scamp had hopped his way up the bank of the ditch and into a low branch on a nearby tree. Spunky. Now it was obvious that the left wing was pointing the wrong way, from the shoulder outward. Even I knew that wasn’t good.

I met Pat and led her to where I had last seen the owl. We split up and searched for him. After about five minutes I heard some grumbling that included the words ‘wild goose chase’. Oh Pat, you don’t know me. There is an injured bird here that needs help and I will find him if it involves flashlights.

I found him a short time after that. He had tried to go further up the hill and gotten stopped by thick brush. Pat deftly threw a towel over him and swooped him up wearing welder’s gloves. We looked him over. He had a compound fracture (bone sticking out) very close to the shoulder. Not an easy repair. Even if they can save the wing, the bone callus that forms limits the flexibility the shoulder needs and the bird can’t fly very well, if at all. Not well enough to hunt again.

I heard back from Badger Run that the owl was going to be taken to the vet when he opens. The outcome might well be amputation of the wing and a spoiled life as a wildlife ambassador, taken to schools, etc. The vet could decide he can’t be saved. A release back into the wild seems unlikely, but you never know. He beat some pretty big odds by hopping in front of the one person who wasn’t going to give up helping him out on a Sunday. And who found for him the angels who selflessly came to his rescue and can do the best for him that is possible. I mean, look at that face. Who wouldn’t want to help that little owl?

Snow Goose Blast-off

Snow Goose Blast-off

It seemed to be a day for injured birds. Above is a typical snow goose blast-off. Typically they do this whenever an eagle flies over, but sometimes they just seem to do it for no good reason at all. You wonder how they keep from running into each other and getting hurt, huh?

After this particular blast-off above, I noticed a lone snow goose on the ground where they took off from. Through the binoculars I could see he was lying with his belly on the ground flapping his wings meekly. At first he scooted himself forward a little bit with each wing flap, but he was fading quickly. Then he stopped flapping. Then his beak slowly lowered to the ground and he never moved again.

Apparently, sometimes they do get hurt. I wonder if he broke a wing and fell to the ground. He may have just been sick and was left behind, but it’s strange that he coincidentally died so soon after the blast-off. You would think there was a connection.  I’ll never know.

As he lay there flapping I looked around and counted at least eight bald eagles as close as I was to him. None of them seemed to notice him. The ravens didn’t even come over. Never a coyote when you need one. I figure at the very least a coyote will come around tonight. They don’t miss much. “Dead goose? I’m on it.”

Klamath Day 3 – Walking on Water

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2013 by chamimage
Sunrise_Tulelake

Sunrise_Tulelake

This morning I saw a coyote walk on water. Okay, technically the water was frozen, but it was impressive to watch him go across a large frozen pond with a bird in his mouth. I am suspicious that the bird was not exactly gotten legitimately. He was looking around nervously like he was expecting maybe an angry eagle to show up any second, if you know what I mean.

Goose Crossing

Goose Crossing

I spent a pleasant evening with white-fronted geese. When I first stopped there were just a few close to the road. Then a few more flew in, and a few more. Before long I had an impressive flock before me. The kept kind of landing further north, so at one point I decided to leave the shadow of my car and move my tripod northward. Big mistake. The car was breaking up my outline and as soon as my humanoid shape was exposed there was a massive blast off. Some forgave me and came back, but not all.

Jumping Jacks

Jumping Jacks

I decided I liked the geese against the earth better than against the sky. Anyone familiar with autofocus knows that is easier said than done, especially with an aperture of f/6.7 and low light, but I got a few. Looking at the flight shots sure makes me jealous of those that can fly. It looks kind of fun.

At one point a bald eagle strafed the goose flock and they blasted off, thinning them out even more. It was worthwhile for the flight shots I got of the eagle.

 

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

Klamath Day 2

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by chamimage
Back-lit Barn

Back-lit Barn

I intended to go directly to a spot in the Tule Lake refuge this morning to try to re-create a landscape I bungled last year that was gorgeous, but unsharp. I am pretty sure why it was unsharp. The EXIF file confirms it was shot with my favorite lens, my 70-200mm zoom, and my favorite trick for ruining good images with it is to mount it on my tripod with the VR turned on. You get fuzzy photos every time that way. The problem is, you can mount bigger lenses with the VR on so I never get in the habit of checking it.

First I had to stop halfway through Lower Klamath refuge because there was a bare tree back-lit in the fog. Then I stopped at the WWII Japanese interment camp because I had never photographed it in good light. Then I found the photograph above with the willow branches and barn and fog.

By that time the sun was too high for the shot I had set out to try for so I decided to go look for the mule deer that can always be found between refuge headquarters and the Lava Beds National Monument entrance. They were nowhere to be found. That’s the problem with absolutes like always and never.

The rest of the morning was spent scouting Lower Klamath NWR for the first time this trip. The only good opportunity came with a bald eagle in the eagle nest. I pulled up behind the other half dozen cars that were there and as I got my tripod out he flew off. Another day, my friend. The nest is back-lit in the afternoon so it will have to wait for another morning.

After a burger and a chat with the old-timers in Merrill I spent the afternoon making flight shots of geese, swans, and a large flock of red-winged blackbirds. I made a video of the blackbird flock morphing itself over the landscape after taking an inordinately long time getting my video to work (now some day I’m going to have to figure out how to edit video and then figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do with it now that I have it). I kept getting a black LCD in Live View. It turns out that for some reason in Manual mode my new Nikon D4 fails to read the aperture every so once in a while (always in Live View so far so maybe it is not meant to be used in manual mode), so sets the aperture to f/22, hence the black LCD, 3+ stops under exposed (If you look at the EXIF it lists the f stop as f—). There are a few black frames where there should be still images throughout the day on my download today as well. Have not seen it happen yet in aperture priority mode so I don’t think it is a bad connection with the lens. It never happened on my last trip to Banff, but I doubt I used Manual mode very much there. Here I’m tracking birds from sky to ground so I need to use it. That may be serious enough to finally send it in for repair and they can fix the virtual horizon that doesn’t work while they’re at it.

I read in the Klamath Falls paper today that this time of year there are more birds in this Klamath Basin area than in any other part of the country. The geese swans, ducks, and blackbirds, among others, are migrating north. I’m sure the birders could name many many more. This year they opened the web site for the Winter Wings Festival participants to list the birds they see. On the first day of the festival (yesterday) there were 100 species listed. I saw three sandhill cranes today standing on a frozen pond so you can add them to the list, as well.

Klamath Day 1

Posted in Photo Stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2013 by chamimage
Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

On arriving in the afternoon I checked in at Klamath National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and found that there were no snow geese at Tule Lake, and only about 16,000 at Lower Klamath (there are about 59,000 white-fronted geese and 60,000 thousand swans). I assume that has to do with the amount of open, unfrozen water available (not much in either refuge). Naturally I decided to tool around Tule Lake. I don’t know why, I just wanted to.

I intended to take only 30-40 minutes driving around Tule Lake and then go scout the Lower Klamath refuge, but found an eagle eating a coot and then another eagle came and another eagle and my afternoon was shot. My memory of the bald eagles at Lake Coeur d”Alene in Idaho was that they were constantly fighting and stealing fish from one another. These eagles got along just fine. When the second eagle showed up and was allowed to eat on the coot I assumed it was the mate, but then the third adult came along. Maybe they have an alternative lifestyle. A raven was also allowed to pilfer at will, as long as it wasn’t right under a beak. I think there must be lithium in the water here.

All eagles left but the female. She seemed to be enjoying the spotlight and being photographed. Then I noticed the raft of coots was edging closer and realized she was waiting for them to get too close. They seemed incapable of preventing themselves from slowly coming closer, like some sort of momentum pushed them forward. She did finally make a play for them. I must not have seen the one she was going for, if it was a coot at all, because she stopped short and plunged into the icy slush short of open water. Something obviously dived. She came up empty.

On the way out I came across a refuge employee who informed me he had been photographing the sunset, and also that I wasn’t supposed to be in the refuge after sunset. So he was doing personal photography after sunset, but I’m not supposed to. Okay. I was thankful for my all wheel drive on the way out. There were mud holes.

On the highway back to Klamath Falls, just short of town, when I had long forgotten about being worried about hitting a deer, I saw a quick flash of an image of a coyote in my headlights in the opposite lane as I went by. Then I saw a semi barreling down in that lane. I tried desperately to find my light switch to blink my lights to warn him, but failed. I looked in my mirror, hands clenched in terror. The coyote was lit up by the semi headlights and he was standing stock still. Just as I braced for the impact, at the last possible nanosecond, the coyote took a step forward. Just one step. His tail must have dusted the side of that semi, it was that close. There was a car coming in my lane, the lane now containing the coyote, but it was too far behind me to see what developed. I’ll have nightmares about that damned coyote. It was really dark out there and having dust and mud on your headlights doesn’t help. Only a sliver of a moon this weekend.

‘Only’ 270 or so bald eagles here currently. The number always varies, depending on how foul the weather is north of here. Bad weather up north, 500 eagles here. There are still plenty of them to go around this year.

George Lepp is speaking at the Wild Wings Festival tomorrow night at Oregon Institute of Technology, but I have heard him talk twice in the past two years so chose to not have to hustle in from the refuge to clean up and eat in time to go. He now lives in Bend, Oregon so we are seeing a lot of him here.

The Balds

Posted in Photo Stories, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2012 by chamimage

Bald Eagle Nest

I have been busy optimizing images from the Klamath Basin trip. I have posted a few of the bald eagle images here.

There were approximately 300 bald eagles in the Klamath Basin, which includes south central Oregon and northern California. I spent all of my time on the California side.

I photographed mostly the Tule Lake Refuge, but the eagle images in this post were all from the Lower Klamath refuge. The eagles are everywhere, but there are a couple of areas that were definitely hot spots.

This nest is a pair of local eagles that were doing some remodeling. Most of the other eagles were just here for the winter. The number of eagles depends on how nasty the weather is elsewhere. In severe winters more eagles come to Klamath, where it is relatively warmer and less deep snow.

Bald Eagle in Flight

I found a spot in Tule Lake where the eagles were hunting the snow geese pretty hard. I was told of a similar area in Lower Klamath that I didn’t have time to check out.

The eagles fly over the flock of geese, resulting in a massive blast-off of geese. The slowest goose, or the one who flies up into the eagle’s trajectory path, gets to be dinner. The injured and aged geese get culled out pretty quickly. The eagles seemed to be targeting the snow geese exclusively, even though there were more white-fronted geese in the refuges. Snow geese are smaller. I don’t know if flight speed has anything to do with it. Tundra swans ignored the eagles, though I did see a swan carcass or two during the trip.

When I photographed bald eagles on Lake Couer d”Alene in northern Idaho in winter they were feeding on spawning kokanee and there was no end of fighting and thievery going on. In Klamath there didn’t seem to be any of that. Even juvenile birds were left alone to feed on their goose carcass while other eagles sat patiently nearby. The only aerial interactions seemed to be acrobatics and play and not the fighting they were engaged in in Idaho. Perhaps the hunting is just easier in Klamath and there is no competition for food.

Bald Eagle in Flight

The eagles roosted in fir trees in a refuge that is accessible only by permission since the road crosses private property. I was in Klamath Falls during the Winter Wings festival and they did have daily trips to the roost early in the morning to witness the fly-out. They traveled to the site in buses and there was a fee. I wasn’t aware of the access problems so hadn’t signed up for the fly-out and it fills up quickly before the festival. From what I heard I don’t think I would have wanted to sacrifice one of my morning shoots for it, anyway, though it would be fun to see all of those eagles fly off. Perhaps if I was there for more days next time I would be willing to devote a morning to the fly-out.

I would encourage anybody who loves seeing bald eagles or likes birdwatching and doesn’t mind 14 degree temperatures and wind to attend the Wild Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon in mid February. There are all manner of field trips offered, both birdwatching and photography. The birds can be found on your own, but it may involve a bit of exploration on the first day. The hot areas are not obvious or on the outer parts of the refuge so involve driving on a lot of dirt roads. There was a few inches of snow on my last morning and I didn’t even try to drive on the refuge roads that day. The best bet would be to drive out into the refuge and sit with the windows open and listen for a goose blast-off and go to where the geese are. The eagles won’t be far away from the geese. You can stop by the Tule Lake refuge headquarters and ask about the eagle nest location and look through their spotting scope at the nesting great horned owl mama while you’re there. They close the road near the eagle nest after the festival so festival weekend is a good time to be there.