Iceland (Part 5): Eastern Region

 

Detail Map of Area near Jokulsarlon

After four consecutive days in a different hotel every night, we slowed the pace a bit and signed up for two days at the Hali Country Hotel, just up the road from the famous Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and the black sand “Ice Beach.”  Our guide, Haukur, had also arranged for an early morning visit to a puffin colony at Cape Ingolfshofdi.

View from the “Trail” leading down from Cape Ingolfshofdi  as we return to the SUV

Puffins spend most of their lives living in the open ocean but in the spring many of them flock to coastal colonies in Iceland.    But it takes some effort to get close to them as the image above suggests.  There was no road and no visible trail to the base of the promontory where the puffin colony was located.  The several kilometers of splashing through marshes and undulating fields of soft lava ash makes one imagine they are testing a prototype for a new carnival thrill ride.  Then comes the hard part, trudging with a pack of camera gear up a steep slope of lava ash and sand, something akin to climbing a sand dune.

But at the top, one finds a field of lush green grass which stretches out invitingly….to a sudden drop off a vertical cliff high above the ocean.  The puffins nest in burrows they have found or excavated themselves, bringing in grass and feathers as lining for the chicks.

The puffin’s diet consists almost entirely of fish, which it captures by swimming under water using its semi-extended wings as paddles and its feet as a rudder. We couldn’t stay too long in any one spot because the puffins would wait until we were a safe distance before entering their nests and feeding their young.

As cute as the puffins are, their neighborhood has a bad element…a large thug of a bird known as the great skua.  The skuas build their nests on the ground out in the open, almost as bait for naïve trespassers whom they attack with with fiendish glee .

When a bird this large (4-foot wing span) is heading directly at your face…….

The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon is not far from Cape Ingolfshofdi and is a favorite stop for most visitors because of its dramatic scenery, easy access, and its full range of services (café, souvenirs, boat rides, etc.)  Icebergs breaking off the Vatnajökull glacier float in the lagoon eventually working their way out a narrow channel into the ocean.  Once in the ocean, many will be pushed up by the tide onto a black sand beach, the famous Ice Beach, providing numerous opportunities for photographers.

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

At the back of the parking lot away from the tourists, a flock of Arctic Terns had taken possession of a field  for a nesting colony.  The tern is famous for its incredibly long migration route, the longest-distance migration of any bird, moving between its Arctic breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland and its non-breeding territory in the Antarctic, a distance that approaches 25,000 miles. And they share one characteristic with the skua: the ferocity of their attacks on trespassers.  Although they are much smaller, they use a team approach, overwhelming the target with their numbers.

(Nikon D810 & 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 70mm; 1/5,000th sec @ f/7.1, ISO 400)

There is a second glacial lagoon, Fjallsarlon,  just a few miles down the road from the far more popular Jokulsarlon.

Rick and Michele setting up their shots at Fjallsarlon

The lagoon is smaller than Jokulsarlon; there are no tourist services and the water is not as blue.  But the solitude was a nice contrast.  When it was time to leave, Haukur suggested a short hike to some nearby ponds where we might find some geese.

Barnacle geese with goslings

One of the most magical experiences on any Iceland tour is a visit to the Ice Beach.  It is here that the last remnants of a dying glacier wash up on a black sand beach and complete their thousand-year life cycle.  These stranded crystal sculptures seemed almost alive as the surf swirls around them, refracting and reflecting the dim light of the late evening.

Last Vestiges of a Glacier

 

 

Next:  Lupines and More…….

Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

Galapagos 20 Approaching Storm

Approaching Storm at Sunset

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld on moving ship with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 150mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800; four images photomerged)

The volcanic archipelago making up the Galapagos Islands is relatively young by geological measures and on some of the newer islands you may see only the initial stages of plant life.

Galapagos 12 Cactus

A Cactus Plant Finds a Spot on a Lava Formation

One of the strange aspects of volcanic activity is the formation of lava tubes.  Don’t ask me for an understandable explanation, but it has to do with the lava flow cooling and becoming hard on the surface, while still-hot lava continues to move under the hardened surface.  In some cases, when the eruption ends, the last of the moving lava proceeds through the channel, draining it and leaving a long cave behind.

Galapagos 22A Lava Cave

Lava Tunnel

(Technical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 24 mm; exposure 1/25th sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600; two images photomerged)

The tunnel was interesting but very dark and creepy, a great location for a horror movie. And it was the wildlife we wanted to see so not a lot of time was spent there.

Galapagos 28 Sea Lions and iguana

Two Sea Lion Pups Napping as Marine Iguana Strolls By

The Galapagos marine iguana is the only iguana that has evolved from a strictly land-based creature to one that swims and feeds in water.  They are found nowhere else on the planet.  They feed on ocean algae, often fully submersed, and even have a special gland common to marine birds that enables them to extract excess salt from their blood and sneeze it out several times a day.

Galapagos 11 Sea Lion YawningSea Lion Yawning

The sea lions found in the Galapagos Islands are the smallest of the sea lion species.  The female gives birth to a single pup a year after mating and she stays with it for the first week after birth.  She then will depart for one to four days to hunt, while other females of the colony stay behind to watch over the youngsters.  Eventually, the pups join their mother to develop swimming and hunting skills.

Galapagos 28 Mocking BirdGalapagos Mocking Bird

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/8, ISO 800; very tight crop of final image)

The smaller birds, such as the Galapagos mocking bird, were more timid than most of the island wildlife but they still provided photo opportunities on occasion.  Interestingly, there are seven subspecies of the Galapagos mockingbird, and each one seems to be largely endemic to different islands of the archipelago.  Apparently, it was the differences (such as beak size and shape) among these birds, as well as his better known study of the Galapagos finches (15 subspecies) that sparked Darwin’s thinking about adaptive evolution.

 

Galapagos 24 Floreana IslandSunrise, Floreana Island

 

 

Coming Next: The World Famous Blue-Footed Booby

Galapagos Islands (Part 1)

Galapagos 21 Another Sunrise           Sunrise on the Equator, Pacific Ocean

The Galapagos Islands are a chain, or archipelago, formed by volcanic action over the past 5 million years.  Located on the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador. But what makes them special is the unique array of wildlife that is found there.  Many of the species are found nowhere else on earth and, because they lack natural predators, most have no fear of the thousands of tourists (even photographers) who come to see them every year.

Galapagos 02 Land Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana, Feeding on Succulents

The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily an herbivore, feeding mostly on cacti and other succulents and thus can go for long periods without drinking water.  This species can weigh up to 13 pounds and they can live for as long as 50 to 60 years. The female lays up to 20 eggs in burrows they have excavated.

Galapagos 07 Frigate Red Chest

 

There are two kinds of frigatebirds on the islands, but the males of both variants possess the distinctive red throat pouch which inflates into enormous heart-shaped balloons. It can take up to 30 minutes for the pouch to completely fill as the male hopes to enthrall a passing  female.

Galapagos 03 Frigate Bird with Nest MaterialFrigatebird Carrying Nesting Material

 

Nesting occurs in colonies that may include members of both variants.  The nests are constructed mostly by the female with materials brought in by the male.  The birds can have wing spans of 7 feet.

CGalapagos 04 Frigate ChickYoung Frigatebird Chick on Nest

The female lays only one egg and it may take 40-50 days to hatch.  Both parents share in the nesting and feeding after hatching.  It will take another 20-24 weeks before the juvenile fledges but they continue to be fed for another 20 weeks or more before they fend for themselves.   Because of the length of this cycle, the female can reproduce only once a year at the most.

Galapagos 27 Comorant

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant Drying “Wings”

The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galapagos and is found on only two of the islands.  Only 1,000 breeding pairs exist.  Having no land-based predators, natural selection favored those birds that were better built for swimming and diving.  Their wings are about 1/3rd the size needed to fly.

Galapagos 17 ComorantFlightless Cormorant with a Catch

Their courtship is unusual because it is the female that aggressively seeks out the male, and subsequently will depart her partner and offspring to re-mate serially with different males while males raise the young by themselves.

Galapagos 08 CrabSally Lightfoot Crab (Yes, really!)

Winner of my award for the creature with the best name (barely edging out the blue footed booby), the colorful  Sally Lightfoot Crab is a common sight in the Galapagos Islands.  According to one source, this little beastie is named after a famous Caribbean dancer because of its incredible agility.  I don’t know about the namesake, but these guys are quick.

Galapagos 01 SurfWave Breaking in Late Afternoon Light

 

Next:  Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

 

 

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-12-3549

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-19-4901

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-19-5047

Avian Food Fight #1

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

telephoto-d-16-12-19-5031

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-28-5461

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-28-5381

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.

telephoto-d-16-12-28-5312

Bald Eagle in Flight

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

d-16-12-28-5421-crop-rdy2size

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–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)

Close to Home

 

Since I’m on the road today, this post combines the monthly One Friday Focus, sponsored by Stacy Fischer’s Visual Venturing Blog and a short piece inspired by a conversation last week with a fellow photographer.  Meanwhile, I’m off on another short trip this weekend, hopefully to capture a few images of the Milky Way over the Atlantic Ocean.  So once again, this post will serve double duty.

Last week Kim, a fellow photographer in the Great Falls Studios organization, described her specialty as photographing wildlife in her backyard.  Later, while reflecting on what she had been saying, I realized that I had been doing only a little of this over the years.  Other than a major effort on a pair of nesting bluebirds, I have not really concentrated on seeking subject matter just outside my windows.  Her stories made me think that perhaps I should look harder.  But for now, I decided to search through my files for some images that I already had taken to see what did happen to catch my eye.  The one rule: they had to have been taken from a spot within 100 feet of my house.   So, for what it is worth, here they are:

Kent June 2016 Solar Halo

Solar Halo

(Technical: Nikon D200 with 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 18mm handheld; 1/1,000th sec. @ f/16, ISO 200)

Kent June 2016 Snow

Snow on Tree

(Technical: Nikon D200 with 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens at 120mm handheld; 1/160th sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 200)

Kent June 2016 Magnolia

Magnolia

(Technical: Nikon D800E with 60mm f/2.8 Micro lens on tripod; 1/100th sec. @ f/8, ISO 400)

Heron D-16-05-21-5862

Blue Heron Taking Flight

(Technical: Nikon D810 with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm on tripod; 1/500th sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 3200)

Kent June 2016 Butterfly

Tiger Swallowtail on Purple Coneflower

(Technical:  Nikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm handheld; 1/1250th sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 800)

Bluebird D-16-05-02-9754

Female Bluebird Bringing Dinner

(Technical: Nikon D800E with 50mm f/1.8 lens; 1/2000th sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800)

This image was taken last month but is the same birdhouse used in my post a year ago.  I was planning a new approach this year.  Readers may recall that previously I had used a 200mm focal length lens on a camera inside the house and an off camera flash about six feet from the nest.  The flash was triggered by a wireless remote system (Pocket Wizard) but a single flash only provided a small amount of fill light.  This year, I planned to use Nikon’s wireless remote that would trip the camera’s shutter and place the camera about 10 feet from the nest.  I would be able to fire the shutter in continuous mode (not feasible with flash) while remaining inside the house. Unfortunately, I had only one day of shooting thanks to a sustained period of rainy weather.  But should the birds return next year, I may have better luck.

One Friday Focus

This month’s image was another interesting challenge, many thanks to David Croker for providing it.  As a reminder, the 1PF Challenge is sponsored by Stacy Fischer of Visual Venturing and anyone can participate.  Details can be found at  Visual Venturing .

David’s original RAW image is shown below.  It offers a variety of possibilities and started as usual  by going through some standard steps of image prep (setting B&W points, highlights, shadows, etc. in Adobe Camera Raw).  Following this,  I opened the file in Photoshop and tried several approaches such as a straight black and white print which looked very nice, but I finally decided to go on a more radical direction.

2016 06 1PF Original

This usually means a foray into the Filter Gallery, which is fast becoming my “go-to” place for this monthly event.  Needless to say, I do not possess a single plug-in app so my choices are somewhat restricted, comparatively speaking.

But I digress.  The tool I picked is the so-called Glowing Edges under the “Stylize” Tab.  Although I have used this one before, it behaves quite unpredictably (at least for me) so the results can be quite different in each case.  There are three adjustment sliders to control the effects and the final settings were: Edge Width: 2;  Edge Brightness: 17; and Smoothness: 8.  It was starting to look pretty decent, but the lovely blue sky in the upper portion was now a black void and desperately needed help.  Rather than just crop it out, I used the clone tool to copy sections of the lower clouds.  This, of course, created a new problem–the newly created clouds were not reflected in the water below.

The solution was to select the upper clouds, then copy them into a new layer.  I then used the Edit–>Transform–>Flip Vertical function to flip the layer and then I dragged it down to the bottom of the image.  An actual reflection should be softer and not as bright as the original object so I used the gaussian blur tool and a decrease in the opacity of the layer to create a look that matched the reflections that were already there.  The final image is shown below.

Robin Kent 2016 06 1PF Final Final

Thanks again to David for providing this month’s image and thanks also to Stacy for keeping this herd of cats heading in a generally productive direction.  Be sure and check out the other contributions at June One Photo Focus.  One again, there will be an amazing variety of interpretations.  In the meantime,

 

Keep Shooting….

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.

Monarch 05 D-11-01-20-0501

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.

Monarch 06 D-11-01-18-229_233 PAN

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.

Monarch 09 D-11-01-18-237_238 PAN

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.

Monarch 01 1602-21

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

Monarch 02 1602-33

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.

Monarch 08 1602-32

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.

Monarch

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.

Monarch 03 D-11-01-18-0508

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.

Monarch 11 D-11-01-17-0139

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.

Monarch 10 D-11-01-20-0539

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

Monarch 13

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….