Thursday, April 24, 2008

Springtime in Yellowstone

Majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, bears, wolves and buffalo are some of the reasons people travel to Yellowstone National Park, my wife Debbie and I were no exception. The purpose of our springtime journey to the Wyoming Park was to photograph the iconic wolf, moose, elk and antelope. They were all there, but to our surprise, we discovered and focused on a wonderful world of birds, flowers and smaller, more common animals.

We found late April into early May to be a great time to visit, just as the park is bursting with new life and color. In the cool breeze of Spring, we found unexpected treasures at a small freshwater lake in the mountains of northern Yellowstone. We had the good fortune so witness the courtship of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

In Yellowstone, tourists have a curious habit of stopping whenever they see wildlife anywhere near the road. They come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road, make U-turns, and any number of other vehicle maneuvers to get a good view. Other tourists, in turn, stop behind, or pull into the other lane, scanning the surrounding woodland for any sign of life. It’s kind of like an animal version of the paparazzi hunting for a celebrity on Rodeo Drive. Often they yell out “whaddya lookin’ at?” if there isn’t an immediately recognizable large animal. If someone gets out of his or her car with a camera, it is the signal that there must be something great. Soon a small mob will form to approach whatever animal is nearby, shutters clicking as the strobes fill in the shadows.

On our second day we had just finished breakfast and were driving north, through the park toward Mammoth Hot Springs, when we sighted a car on the side of the road. Our excitement increased as we saw a man with a camera, and no other cars! A clear sign, in the Yellowstone tourist language, that something special must be visible. As we pulled over to the side of the road, we quickly scanned the horizon, a trick we learned while waiting in backups along the highway and watching other drivers. Other than a small lake with tall reeds we didn’t see any large animals. We checked to see if we could see which way the photographer was looking. Other cars were now starting to pull off both sides of the road around us at haphazard angles. The photographer began moving back to his car, camera down around his neck, when I rolled down my window I was about to join the Yellowstone paparazzi and yell “whaddaya lookin’ at?” he looked in my direction and shook his head side to side. He began walking back to his car.

Other cars caught the headshake and started to pull back onto the highway, hoping to be the lead car for the next sighting. As the last car was pulling out, my window was still down, I heard the beautiful sounds of a chorus whistling and tweeting down the embankment just ahead of me. As we listened to the variety of the bird’s calls, we saw flashes of yellow and black with streaks of white as a number of birds flew from reed to reed.

I glanced back to the road as the photographer who brought our attention to this area was pulling back onto the road. I checked the horizon again wondering what brought him out of the car when the sounds of the birds all around the small lake captivated me once again. I had never heard such wonderful sounds. I ventured out of the car mounting my camera on the tripod and moved quickly down the embankment. I was soon out of sight of the cars passing on the road, a good thing, since I had no idea what type of riot would ensue if people saw me with a camera and tripod outside of my car.

The male birds were so colorful and animated that they didn’t seem to notice my presence. At one point, a male Yellow-headed Blackbird landed on a reed directly in front of me. The bird was so close that my telephoto lens wouldn’t focus. While watching the male, I heard rustling noises in the undergrowth of the tall grasses near the edge of the water. After about 45 minutes, which seemed like only 10, I noticed a correlation between the arrival of the male on the reed and the rustling sounds from below. The male would hop from the reed to the ground and jump through the tall grasses in pursuit of a mate.

While I was enjoying the bird sounds and watching flashes of yellow bounce from reed to reed then out of sight, my wife was waiting patiently by the car, a clear signal for passersby to stop and ask the familiar question of what she was looking at. When she replied that, there were dozens of beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbirds they drove off. Some looked at her as if she was not all there as if to say, “Birds! You can see birds anywhere this is Yellowstone.”

I will always be grateful to the anonymous photographer who, for whatever reason, was near the lake and brought our attention to the wonderful birds and their Spring dance among the reeds.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Florida Bird Photography and Alligators

Florida, the land of sunshine, fresh fruit and a cornucopia of colorful birds waiting to be enjoyed. Home to over 257 species of birds the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is a birders dream or in some cases, nightmare. This Southern Florida refuge covers over 200 square miles of wetlands and serves a vital role to the environment. Keys to a successful visit include a birders guide, camera, sunscreen, bug repellent knowing what else lives there.

When I traveled to Florida for a photography course, I had my camera set for birds, not the American Alligator. I read about the park and decided this would be a perfect location for an early morning photo shoot before class. Normally when photographing in a new area I visit the location to check out the lighting, best places to set up my tripod, and talk with the park rangers about the wildlife. Since I was only in Florida for a few days, and in class most of each day, I was not able to make a reconnaissance trip before my morning shoot. My lack of planning would come back to haunt me later that morning.
I arrived before sunrise and was the only one around. I parked across the lot from the visitor center facing several large ponds with levees surrounding them. The refuge has ten numbered water impoundments that look like large ponds that are used to control water levels for the vegetation and soils that provide feeding and nesting habitat for the wildlife. One of the ponds is surrounded by an 1/8th mile levee that forms the Marsh Trail. At the far end of the pond is the observation tower, which was my destination for the morning.
The levees surrounding the large ponds were about fifteen to twenty feet wide. While waiting for the light to be just right, I saw a few ducks and geese floating nearby. I thought to myself how dangerous could this be if they have observation towers and interpretive signage along the trail.
When I entered the observation tower, I began to hear in the distance what sounded like someone trying to start a small engine. It was a deep sputtering growling type of sound. I could envision someone pulling a cord on a generator or kick starting the engine only to have it crank a few times and sputter out. Trying to put out of my mind what was becoming an annoying sound, I tried a few other locations along the bank of the levee to photograph snake birds drying their wings. After taking a few photos of the local Limpkin population, I still heard someone trying to start their engine. He must have an arm or leg of steel to keep trying.

After a few more photographs, I decided it was time to head back to class. When walking back on the dirt path to my car, I noticed some strange lines crossing over the levee from one pond to the next, as if someone had dragged a stick across the dirt leaving a serpentine line leading down into the water. I hadn’t noticed these before but now saw several. Just then, I heard a loud roar from the bushes just ahead, it was the man trying to start the engine! How did he get from behind me in the distance to right here in the bushes? I looked down at the line crossing the path, looked at the bushes where I heard the cranking low growling sound, then the light came on in my head – alligators! I replayed a scene from one of the popular nature shows about how fast an alligator could run on land, about 30 miles an hour in short bursts in a straight line. I stopped in my tracks and contemplated making a run for my car, which I could see in the distance. I decided I couldn’t make it past the bushes with my tripod, backpack and camera fast enough. The next roar from the bushes convinced me I should make my own tracks in the opposite direction around the pond. I would be late for class but that was the least of my worries.
With the warm rays of the morning sun the marsh was coming alive all at once. I could see dozens of alligators floating on the surface making their bellowing chorus. Their heads and tails were out of the water, with their bodies submerged, mouths open, making the deep rumbling growling sound that vibrated the air. It was mating season and I was on their turf.

Before I made a dash for safety, my journalistic instinct kicked in and I took a few pictures, of these prehistoric looking creatures, in case the worst happened and I became breakfast. This wasn’t exactly the early morning with the birds I envisioned when I started out. Ever since this experience I have made it a point to be more prepared when entering a wilderness area by doing my research beforehand.

Through this experience, I have learned that there is a lot more to do then watch birds and dodge alligators if you visit the refuge. In addition to the wildlife around the freshwater storage areas are walking trails through a cypress swamp, biking trails, fishing, butterfly gardens and a 5.5 mile canoe trail.
I have also located a recording of the guttural call that the alligators make that I mistook for an engine trying to start. Whenever I get too confident on where I’m traveling I log on to the Crocodilians Natural History and Conservation website to listen to the sound. It stills gives me chills when I hear it today.