New Year, New Gear!

Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter.  For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography.  As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR  telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender.  When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm.  That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.

Weight is also a consideration.  The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs.   And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.

But how does it perform?  The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made.  In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment.  So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.

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Pileated Woodpecker  (male)

(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod;  1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)

The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing.  Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.

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Pileated Woodpecker (female)

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod;  1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

Adding the extender brought the subject really close.  But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender.  Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations.  As before, this is an uncropped image.  A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO.  This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.

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Avian Food Fight #1

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)

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Avian Food Fight #2

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)

The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller.  But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.

Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight.  I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park.  I will spare you samples of the results.  They turned out fine, but buzzards??

We need something more impressive.  Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.

Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter.  It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there.  More information about it can be found here.

So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic.   Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well.  But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.

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In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards).  Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.

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But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances?  We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car)  Here are two examples of the results.

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Bald Eagle in Flight

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)

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Bald Eagle with Fish

(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld;  1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)

In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January.  Updates will be included in future posts.  In the meantime…

 

Keep Shooting……

Northwest Passage (Final)

After departing Jessie Harbor on Banks Island, we headed south for yet another bizarre Arctic scene, the “Smoking Hills,” a 25-mile stretch of shoreline named by John Franklin in 1826 on his third expedition searching for the Northwest Passage.

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The Smoking Hills, Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

The phenomenon of these burning cliffs is neither geothermal nor volcanic in origin.  Deposits of low-grade, sulfur rich coal spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen.  As the hills erode, the coal is exposed to the air and starts burning.

 

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Onsite View of the Smoke

We boarded the Zodiacs and headed for the shore, wondering whether the opportunity to breathe sulfuric acid was a good idea.  The climb up the muddy slopes was difficult, but soon we were looking into a ghastly scene evoking Dante’s Vestibule of Hell and the inscribed words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Deciding that the noxious fumes were begining to foster hyperbolic literary allusions, I returned to the shoreline to inspect what turned out to be, at least in geological terms, a psychedelic experience.

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Multi-hued Rock Formation, Franklin Bay

 

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Large Stone (Football size) with Unexplained Markings

arctic-chapter-11-d-16-09-01-3764 Multi-hued Cliffside, Franklin Bay

 

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Basalt Boulder with Folded Seams of Sulphur

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Shoreline of Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

Before heading to the Bering Strait and our final stop in Nome, our captain deviated once again from the normal route in the hope of one last encounter with sea ice.  We headed northwest from Point Barrow, Alaska into the Arctic Ocean and a heavy fog where a batch of sea ice had been reported.  After a few hours we began to see individual chunks of ice on either side of the ship.  As the numbers increased, we could easily see dark spots on the ice just under the water—it was ice algae which is the base of the Arctic food chain. Krill shrimp feed on these algae, and krill are a key part of the diet of whales, seals, fish, and some birds.

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Ice algae–Small Dark Spots in Center Section

Sea ice also serves as resting spots for seals and walruses and we passed examples of both as the ship moved through the water.

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Bearded Seal, Arctic Ocean

 

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Walruses Abanding Ice Floe, Arctic Ocean

Finally, late in the afternoon, we turned back to the south.  Soon we would pass below the Arctic Circle into the Bering Strait and within a few days end our journey in Nome, Alaska.

Some final thoughts—

The Arctic at first glance appears to be a desolate, hostile environment.  But if one looks more closely they will see spots of brilliant colors in the tundra: reds, oranges, yellows.  The deep silence and broad landscapes suggest an emptiness but then you come upon a massive pod of hundreds of narwhals slicing through the water alongside you.  A grey leaden sky turns brilliantly red as the sun shoots through a narrow opening low on the horizon.   You stoop to inspect a tidal pool and see dozens of tiny transparent sea butterflies and sea angels, the size of your thumbnail, carried back and forth by the motion of the water.   We began our journey exploring a 25-mile long channel choked with towering icebergs and a few weeks later we came across a 25-mile stretch of hills that were on fire.  It’s an amazing place and I hope to return.

 

 

 

Northwest Passage–A Short Video

For a change of pace, I thought I would offer up something a little different in this post.  The previous ten posts about this Northwest Passage journey have consisted of words and still photographs.  This time it will be a video report with a musical background.

The Northwest Passage: Into the Arctic Circle

This was my first experiment with video and it was clearly a learning experience.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that, at least for me, a video production is a team effort.  Above all, it requires a talented editor and I had the good fortune to have an excellent partner in this effort.  Her name is Samantha Politis and she took a batch of video files shot with my Nikon D810, a few seconds of drone footage captured by Fredieric Michel, the ship’s videographer, during the visit to the Ilulissat Icefjord (used with his permission), a musical score that she and I selected (license fee paid) and weaved them into a 3 minute video.

I hope you will take a look and let us know what you think.

Next Post (This time for real)–Smoke and Fire)

Northwest Passage (7)

Prince Regent Inlet, one of the several choices now available for transiting the Northwest Passage, is packed with historical locations some of which date back almost two millenia.   It is also brimming with potential for wildlife sightings.  However, we were also experiencing some heavy weather with strong winds and choppy seas, so the plans for a landing at Fury Beach to observe the 191st anniversary of the scuttling of the HMS Fury had to be—well, scuttled.  (Those interested in further details about the Fury and Edward Parry’s search for the Northwest Passage can find more here.)

 

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Polar Bear, Unimpressed by our Little Armada

But Plan B turned out pretty well.  A sheltered bay was located that included a polar bear walking along the beach.  Zodiacs were launched and the bear cooperated by staying put, relatively close to the shore.  It was working on a carcass of an unidentified animal and as long as we didn’t get too close, it seemed uninterested in us.

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(Tight Crop, Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 and 1.7x tele-extender, handheld, 1/200th sec. @ f/4.8, ISO 800)

That evening, our ship hosted the crew of the s/v Vagabond, a 47-foot sailboat especially fitted for overwintering in the Arctic.

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S/V Vagabond

We had passed them a few days earlier and our captain arranged for them to come aboard for a presentation on their research work and what life is like living on a small boat in the Arctic winters.  It was an unusual crew, Eric Brossier, his wife France, and their two charming daughters aged 6 and 8 years old.  Their main activity is data gathering for a variety of research institutions on a wide range of topics.  They also derive income from providing logistical support for filmmakers, photographers, and others.  More on the Brossier family can be found here.

Later that day, another Zodiac run took us to Fort Ross, the site of an abandoned outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

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This outpost was built in 1937, abandoned 11 years later

The organization has a long history in North America, dating back to 1670.  The original land grant was equivalent to 40% of the total land area of modern Canada.  Known first as the dominant fur trader in North America, it is now a major international retailer, owning such subsidiaries as Saks Fifth Avenue.  More about the company’s history can be found here.

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HDR image of interior of living area

Approaching the southern tip of Somerset Island the next day, another Zodiac excursion took us into Hazard Inlet.

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Overlooking Hazard Inlet

 Here we had our first chance to walk on tundra, something akin to stumbling across an enormous sponge with hidden crevices and random sogginess.  Over a thousand years ago, small populations of both the Dorset and subsequently the Thule cultures lived here long ago.  The Dorset people arrived in the Arctic as early as 500 BC and were displaced by the Thule (arriving between 900-1100 AD).  The Thule are the ancestors of the modern Inuit inhabitants of the Arctic.  Scattered archaeological remains of the settlements could still be seen, including gravesites with skeletal remains forced to the surface by cycles of freezing and thawing over the eons.  We were starting to notice a theme of the difficulties humans have had surviving in this harsh environment.

The tundra seems hospitable to the small flowering plants scattered about.  They were already fading in anticipation of the approaching winter, but aging boulders were festooned with colorful displays of lichen.

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Lichen on Boulder

 

Next up:  Bellot Strait, named after a charismatic French explorer who searched in vain for the lost Franklin Expedition

 

 

Hidden Gem: Mexico’s Monarch Preserves

Well, the Google Doodle beat me to the punch yesterday, marking the 41st anniversary of the discovery of the overwintering site of the Monarch butterfly.  But that’s OK, I’m going ahead with this anyway.

D-11-01-18-0271 (Keynote)Monarchs Overwintering in Mexico (2011)

By the mid-20th century the existence of the monarch migration had been well known for many years, but not its full route.  Every August and September, millions of monarchs in the eastern United States and Canada would start flying south toward Mexico and disappear.   Then, around March, they would reappear on a northward journey. The location where they spent those intervening months was unknown.  It was one of nature’s great mysteries.

Until January 9, 1975.

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In that year, a group of scientists following clues left by tagged butterflies that had fallen on the journey south were led to a place high in the mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. There they found millions of butterflies clinging to the branches of the oyamel trees that grow at altitudes as high as 11,000-12,000 feet.

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The fact that these small creatures can actually make the trip of several thousand miles is not the most amazing part of the story.  What is most incredible is that none of them had ever been there before. Yet each year a new torrent of monarchs, separated by three or four generations from those that flew there the previous year, finds its way to those same oyamel trees.

I became entranced with this story in 2001, after reading “Four Wings and a Prayer” by Sue Halpern who traveled to Mexico in a truck with legendary monarch tracker Bill Calvert and experienced first-hand the spectacle of the monarch migration.

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My own journey started shortly afterwards with a trip to Cape May, New Jersey,  a key crossing point for the southbound monarchs over Delaware Bay.  Butterfly researchers at the Cape May Bird Observatory demonstrated the technique of tagging the monarchs and how the tracking depends on anonymous individuals who find a tagged butterfly and report the information of where and when to research centers.

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Tagged Monarch Before Release (2001)

A few days later, I caught up with a researcher in Lorton, Virginia who was tagging southbound monarchs in a field of yellow wildflowers (image below).   He had almost

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Migrating Monarch, Lorton VA (2001)

reached his annual goal of 500 taggings, but was despondent over the fact that this waystation for the monarchs was about to become a shopping center.

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Lorton, Virginia (2001)

Seven years later, I was at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the south shore of Lake Superior, when I spotted a few flashes of orange.  It was a pair of migrating monarchs just arriving from their 100-mile-plus flight across the great lake from Canada.  They still were over 2,500 miles from their destination.

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Migrating Monarch, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI (2008)

In the fall of 2010, a friend called asking if I would like to join her on a trip to see the overwintering sites in Mexico. My answer was quick and the following January, we found ourselves on a long bus ride from Mexico City to the mountain village of Angangueo. But this was just the first of many transportation modes we would use in the coming days such as the back of pick-up trucks, riding horses, and finally hiking on our own at lung-busting (to us at least) altitudes of 11,000 feet and higher.

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Getting Closer, but a Tough Hike Awaits (2011)

But it was all worth it.  Photographs really can’t communicate the scale of the scenes we witnessed.  There are so many butterflies clustered on the trees that the branches bend downward from the weight, occasionally even breaking.The image below shows a small section of a stand of trees in one of the preserves.  Imagine that no matter where you look from this position, all the trees surrounding you are covered from top to bottom with what seem like orange leaves but really are butterflies.

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Monarch Clusters on Oyamel Trees, Mexico (2011)

Mexico does try to protect the sanctuaries, although illegal logging is one of many serious threats.  But on the positive side they enforce strict (5 mph) speed limits on a highway that occasionally is also used by the monarchs when searching for water outside the preserves.

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Monarch Crossing, Mexico  (2011)

An equally serious threat is the loss of habitat in the United States.  Remember that shopping center in Lorton, Virginia? There has been a steady decline in the numbers of monarchs reaching the preserves over the past decade, but there was a slight uptick last

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Chart of Monarch Counts in Mexico (1994-2014)

year.  Preliminary estimates for this winter are cautiously optimistic, with hopes that they might reach the levels of 2011, when I was there.  Keep your fingers crossed and….

 

Keep Shooting….