American Safari, 10-24-2018

It’s not about the photography


Well, not always, anyway. Sometimes I feel joy just from being a witness to the wonders of animal life, even if the photos don’t quite turn out. First, today’s circle of life experience:

Otters are spotted every year at the lake we frequent, though not on most days, and rarely  in the summer. Janet got a surprise brief visit from an otter only a week ago, so I went out a few days ago, hopeful. What I saw, still distresses me: a dead otter floating near shore. The cause of death was not immediately obvious, no obvious trauma, no fishing line wrapped around the head, etc. Sad to lose such a beautiful creature. Today I was near the unfortunate otter again when one of its clan mates, fully alive, swam near me. Gingerly, I followed it, grateful for the knowledge that at least one otter still lived. It swam away from me mostly underwater, then popped up suddenly with a fish in its mouth. otter with fish-3652I slowly spun the kayak in a circle and watched it climb on to a lakeside log. As it proceeded to eat the fish, it seemed to struggle a bit to chow it down. otter with fish-3662

otter with fish-3669

otter with fish-3681

otter with fish-3699


The heron’s strategy of swallowing fish whole seems easier, though I suspect the otter recovers more of the nutritional value of the chewed up fish than the heron. The reeds that partially shielded the otter prevented me from getting a clean shot, but I’m certainly grateful to have been a witness.

A different day this week, mountains rather than lake, but a similar feeling of gratitude. I love the alarm sound pikas make when they spot hikers, regarding it as a greeting to the higher elevations (though the pikas undoubtedly do not share my feelings). I sat not 40 yards below a popular trail in the North Cascades, perched on a boulder, waiting for the pikas to scout the intruder. After a matter of minutes one or two took turns keeping an eye on me.pika pose-3474 One particularly amusing fellow, watched me for 10 minutes, pika pose-3428then would dash off for a mouthful of food and return to watch me while it chewed. pika pose-3424

Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 10/18/2018

Love on the lake


I haven’t taken a picture from dry land for a month. At least, no pictures of birds. Partly because I don’t want more bird-feeder pictures, and partly because there just haven’t been many visible in natural settings. Population decline or normal variation?

In the meantime, the lake paddling has been much more rewarding, photography-wise (and beautiful to boot this fall: glass-smooth water and colorful reflections of fall leaves). It staggers me still to realize we have seen 5 different species of grebes on one lake this fall- no population bust for that family of birds!

Lately I have been stalking the pair of western grebes that are clearly a couple. I take bird photographs to revel in the beauty of animals, and the bonus with this pair is the obvious close bond between them. western grebe in fall color, flying hoodie, flying GBH-3283western grebe in fall color, flying hoodie, flying GBH-3146

The bird in the foreground’s posture fascinates me. Presumably this contorted position prepares it to nap. However it was motoring along just as fast as its mate in normal active positioning. If it wants to move rapidly down the lake, why the head tucking? Impressive flexibility, nonetheless.

Some months ago I wrote a blog on this site about my mother’s art and her interest in elegant animals. The western grebe would certainly have attracted her eye, and paintbrush. See, for example, the pose of one in mid grooming at the top of this post. Or, below, the grebe paddling through a golden reflection of fall. western grebe in fall color-2884

Reluctantly, I left the grebes to enjoy some unmolested together time, and tried to get close to some flightier birds. The hooded mergansers, no stranger to being hunted, never welcome close scrutiny on this lake.western grebe in fall color, flying hoodie, flying GBH-3067

Bufflehead ducks are even more twitchy, normally, but here’s a female that let me get within range. When I turned away, satisfied, she then bolted. western grebe in fall color, flying hoodie, flying GBH-3323

Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 10/12/2018

Good Grebe!


Birds designed to capture fish often have a jauntiness to them that their vegetarian cousins lack. So it is with grebes. When being photographed on a lake they can often be seen diving repeatedly, feeding. Also, they prefer this method of escape from the nosy photographer over flying.  That’s where the fun begins. As they disappear underwater, I paddle to position myself where they might pop up. Usually I’m wrong, or they saw my maneuver and appear 50 yards farther away. But occasionally they surface close by, and paradoxically can seem less alarmed at paddle’s length than when at a distance.

I was treated to three different grebe species when I last visited a local lake. First the dreaded two-headed grebe.horned grebe, red necked grebe, mallard, GBH-2657

(Actually a juvenile pied-billed grebe about to dive.)

The red-necked grebe, a visitor we have only seen in the Methow this year, has a long-necked elegance. The neck color is fading some out of breeding season.horned grebe, red necked grebe, mallard, GBH-2820

My biggest thrill came from the pursuit of this horned grebe. Since it was hugging the shore, I kept trying to shoot it against colorful backgrounds. Success!horned grebe, red necked grebe, mallard, GBH-2786

Of course, the horned grebe looks spectacular in breeding plumage, but I have to go elsewhere for that as they don’t breed/nest in the Methow.

And, for desert, a juvenile female sharp shinned hawk in a rare accessible pose. The odd feathers are due to intense preening.horned grebe, red necked grebe, mallard, GBH-2761

Thanks for reading.


American Safari, 10/3/2018

The background is as important as the subject.

This will be a very short blog, because it’s pretty simple. In wildlife photography, like many other photographic pursuits, we concentrate on the subject, the central thing that interests us, and ignore the extraneous stuff crowding into the frame. When we look at the pictures on our computers we are then shocked to see ugly or distracting backgrounds.

Slowly, I am learning to see like the camera does, or at least pay attention to it intermittently. Of course I notice branches in in the way of my subject, and move to improve the picture. But just this year I am trying also to look at the out-of-focus background in slow moving or still birds. The most obvious example is this loon.fall loon in fall color for e-mail-2338

It gave me lots of opportunities to take its picture; I began to notice strong lines of tree trunks reflected in the water, distracting from the bird. As it swam slowly past me I stopped shooting when the white aspen reflections were visible, and shot like mad when it passed through a pool of color. Since the bird itself is a little ragged (fall plumage), it needed the help of a striking background to set it off.

Kingfishers are generally hard to get close to. I didn’t succeed here either, but I did see the nice color contrast, taking photos as I drifted closer in the kayak. kingfisher, yellow leaves-2245Complimentary colors work nicely for setting off the bird. One of these years I’ll get close enough, too.

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 9/23/2018

Backyard birds, Common birds:


I didn’t post for a month or so. The fires bracketing Winthrop turned the air into something you could make smoke signals with…if you could find clear air for contrast. The birds weren’t happy, neither were the residents, and the light was a lackluster gray.

But, that changed two weeks ago, and migration is on. Our backyard bushes filled with warblers this week. First, the orange crowned. You can tell it’s an orange crowned warbler, because it lacks all identifying characteristics, best described as a ‘generic’ warbler. There is a rarely seen orange crown, visible when it bathes.September blog-1990

Fellow warblers Wilson’sSeptember blog-1949

and yellow rumps also visited the same day, passing through on their way to Central America, I think. September blog-2081

Meanwhile, some common birds tolerated my approach in a kayak at Pearrygin State Park (the Methow is blessed with an abundance of publicly accessible land). A great blue heron portrait:

September blog-1863

A crow eating a tidbit undoubtedly stolen from a camper.

September blog-2146

An osprey devouring a fish:September blog-1888

And, lastly, a red-necked grebe not usually found on these waters.September blog-1663

Thanks for reading.

American Safari, 9/24/2018

Marsh Hawk!


The Northern Harrier (aka. marsh hawk) has always been an elusive bird for this photographer. It flies over fields very low in an irregular swooping pattern, making the flight hard to follow with a camera. Autofocus never seems to catch up with the bird sometimes obscured by vegetation, so low is its flight path. Once I get nearish, all I get is butt shots, as this species definitely doesn’t like people. But today was different.

September blog-2173

So how did I succeed in acquiring an acceptable shot? The bird had a bigger threat than me to deal with.September blog-2163 I saw it being chased by a crow, so exuberantly that the crow sometimes overshot its mark and was in turn being chased by the hawk. The birds circled me at least 4 times, too busy to mark a kayaker, bright green boat notwithstanding. After its fourth pass, the harrier gave up and soared away.September blog-2177

I can’t say, “Check one off the list.” yet. I want a perfect shot, and those are rare. But I’m happy anyway.

American Safari, 8/23/2018


We fled to Whidbey island to get away from the smoke, to breathe clean salt-water-tinged air, see blue skies and forget wildfires. We were not very successful. The smoke followed us, the air was hazy and the sky dull. But the blackberries were everywhere, offering a free all-you-can-eat treat. We ate a quart a day, plus the fistfuls we shoved in our mouths while picking. Still hard to believe all that food grows without fertilizer, weeding, or really any human attention.

There were birds to photograph, though none seemed attracted by the blackberries. Go figure. A goldfinch preferred a much less voluptuous meal of thistle seed.goldfinch in thistle plant -1115

Imagine, preferring thistle seed to blackberries.

Taking advantage of being on an island, we visited the rocky beaches. There we saw a pair we couldn’t identify without poring over the bird guides: western sandpipers.western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-0918

We knew those two above weren’t this next species: The greater yellowlegs certainly lives up to its name. western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1377

In the woods, tall and healthy, I finally got a presentable picture of another well-named, if comic, bird. The brown creeper.western sandpiper, cottontail, goldfinch-1027 It flies to the bottom of a tree and works its way up, eating insects ensconced in the bark. Other birds (nuthatches come to mind) will go down as well as up, but the creeper has a one way creep. To go down it has to fly.

One new species for us has a feature hard to miss, even in the dull light of a smoky day: the red feet of the pigeon guillemot. First a pair, appeared to be mated or courting:western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1260

Then an individual landing.western sandpiper, pigeon guillemots, greater yellowlegs-1279

But we didn’t come to Whidbey island to see birds. We came to breathe; failing that, we came to eat blackberries! One denizen of the brier patch posed for us western sandpiper, cottontail, goldfinch-1130(though he, too, showed no evidence of actually eating the berries near his home). If you want to pick a gallon or two of blackberries, we know the places and the date.