It’s New Year’s Day. Happy New Year! We’re still in the middle of a drought here but half way into the California Rainfall Season, which ended yesterday, Sacramento has measured more than double the average rainfall to date and at six months in, Sacramento has received almost 80% of the average rainfall for the entire year. And that’s a good thing. We’re getting the new year off to a good start. The birds in my backyard seem to enjoy the rain, as well. This female Lesser Goldfinch was surrounded by raindrops as she perched on what’s left of the salvia on the patio a couple of days ago as I was getting a feel for my new Nikon Z9 and Nikkor Z100-400 with the Z2X teleconverter attached.
Looking back at the spectacular photographic opportunities I had in 2021, it thrills me that I am able to do what I do. My extensive travels with talented and inspirational photographers keeps me motivated and eagerly anticipating my next adventure. In 2021, I criss-crossed the country and experienced some of my most memorable photographic moments. I am looking forward to 2022 and another year filled with travels around the US and and maybe beyond. There will be new challenges, more wildlife to photograph, stunning landscapes to capture, and just plain life to experience. This image is from May of 2021 in Homer, Alaska.
The birds have returned to my backyard and yesterday I saw White-crowned Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, Oregon Juncos (Dark-eyed Juncos), a Hermit Thrush, and a single male Anna’s Hummingbird. The Merlin Bird Sound ID app also thought I had a few other birds that don’t live in the Sacramento Valley but I was glad to see it correctly identified those I did see. And, in all fairness, the app has to compete with the automobile traffic on the other side of the wall so it does a pretty good job with all the competing sounds. In addition to the Nikon Z9, I had my new Nikkor Z100-400 lens with the Nikon Z 2.0 teleconverter. I shot this image at 800mm. It’s great to have that reach and the remarkable auto focus that tracks the subject. I was hoping that this guy would turn toward me so the light would catch the glorious color of his gorget but he didn’t. At least some of the gorget had color.
A couple of days before Christmas, I had cataract surgery on my right eye. My Nikon Z9 arrived the day before Christmas but my vision had not stabilized yet and over the weekend, the vision in my right eye was so foggy that photography was out of the question even though I use my left eye for photography. Monday morning the fogginess had cleared and I heaved a sigh of relief and grabbed my new Z9 camera and new Nikkor Z100-400mm lens and went into my backyard to photograph some birds. Only there were no birds to photograph. It has been raining non-stop for several days. The weather seems to have disrupted the patterns of the birds coming to my yard. They didn’t even empty the feeders. So, I focused on what has been forefront in my mind lately, my eye. I attached my new Nikkor Z MC50 macro lens to the Z9 and attached the combo to my Platypod. Sitting at the table and facing the camera to me I realized there was no way to tell what I was photographing. So, I applied the new skill I learned in Fairbanks, Alaska when it was -39° and we decided to shoot from inside the warm vehicle using Nikon’s SnapBridge application instead of suffering outside in the cold. Of course, for me, it’s always easier said than done. I finally set the SnapBridge timer to a 3 second delay, looked at the placement of my eye out of the corner of my eye at the iPhone, pressed the button then looked straight ahead. After a few tries, I managed to center my eyeball so now it’s all the better to see you with. Oh, and the Z9 is pretty cool, too. It doesn’t make any noise. Now I can fire off a hundred shots and nobody will know!!!
The Northern Lights near Fairbanks, Alaska earlier this month made the perfect Christmas scene, especially after a car drove by and braked, reflecting its red brake lights onto the snow-covered tree. Merry Christmas!!
Somewhere near the North Pole, actually about 20 miles south of North Pole, Alaska, at a chilly -16° or so, we stopped to photograph some of the wintery scenes along the road. The yellowed leaves on the lone stem protruding from the snow caught my eye.
A pair of Sandhill Cranes takes off from the frozen pond in the morning sunlight in Bosque del Apache a week ago.
On our last morning at Bosque del Apache, the temperature dropped to well below freezing and the shallow ponds in the preserve froze. The Sandhill Cranes have to walk carefully on the frozen pond and they are entertaining to watch as they slip slide their way across. This shot brought to mind that that old standard, “Me and My Shadow, strolling down the avenue.”
Late in the afternoon on our first day in Bosque del Apache, the clouds obscured the sinking sun creating God beams that illuminated the pond. Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese had already begun settling in the for night.
Four and twenty blackbirds! These Blackbirds weren’t baked in a pie but that nursery rhyme came to mind when massive flocks of undulating Blackbirds (Brewer’s, Yellow-headed, Red-winged, and maybe a few Starlings) swooped around the ponds and fields at Bosque del Apache last week. Although we witnessed none of the Snow Geese blastoffs that we’re used to seeing at Bosque, the Blackbird murmurations certainly got our attention. This flock appears to be mostly brownish females so none of the bright red wing bars or yellow heads of males of various Blackbird species break the monotony of the flock but the sheer numbers and density are still mighty impressive. It was fun to try to photograph their flight patterns but when we were concentrating on photographing Snow Geese or Sandhill Cranes, the photo-bombing Blackbird flock lost its appeal.
It was cloudy, rainy, and windy when we first arrived at Bosque del Apache last week. The inclement weather kept the birds in place and when they did attempt flight, it was erratic. There was a ray of hope for better weather when the sun emerged during a rain shower on our second morning and lit up the mountains in the distance. The rainbow was a glorious addition to the morning. The Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, seen in the distance, seemed content to stay where they were.
Sandhill Cranes fly in at sunset to their roosting pond at Bosque del Apache. With their wings outstretched and their legs dangling beneath them, they are quite a sight as they float down to the pond. It makes me think of them as avian paragliders
My favorite birds at Bosque del Apache are the Snow Geese. This year, however, like the Sandhill Cranes, their numbers are down. We witnessed none of the thrilling explosions when thousands of Snow Geese take flight off the ponds at once. The massive wall of birds one sees in these explosions has become, for me, part of Bosque’s magic. Like everywhere these days, though, there seems to be a “new normal” at Bosque. I was kind of slow adapting to the changes in Bosque this visit and kept hoping and expecting that we would see what for this visit at least, was not going to happen so I needed to adjust my expectations. Finally, on our last day in Bosque, I realized that I had taken very few photographs of Snow Geese in flight so my goal for the last day was to capture photographs of Snow Geese in flight. This quartet, with some juveniles sporting dark bills, flew past me well after the sun had come up.
The Sandhill Cranes fly into the ponds at sunset to roost for the night at Bosque del Apache. With the setting sun coloring the water an intense orange, the crane is reflected and silhouetted as it makes it way through the pond in search of a bite of food before settling into its nighttime roost.
There is something special and unique about the color of the light in sunrises and sunsets in New Mexico. This Sandhill Crane lifted off from its nighttime roost in a pond in Bosque del Apache a few minutes after sunrise and the reds of the New Mexico sun are reflected on its feathers.
The call of Sandhill Cranes was unmistakable Friday morning when we arrived in the dark back at the pond where we had photographed sunset the night before. As the sun tried to show itself, the clouds thickened and kept the light dim. Intermittent rain drops pelted us throughout the morning and when the sun finally broke through the clouds briefly, a rainbow colored the sky. This pair of cranes, one feeding, the other checking out the surroundings, waded in the shallow pond before taking to the sky in search of other feeding options.
Things have changed a little at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge since I was last here two years ago. New Mexico is experiencing a drought like much of the Western United States. Because of this, there is less water available in the refuge for habitat management and as a result, many of the fields that have traditionally been flooded to provide habitat are not being filled. This includes ponds that offer little food value for migrating birds which includes the site along Highway 1 known as the Track Pond (officially designated Wetland Unit 3 South) where in past years, I have photographed unforgettable scenes as the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese leave to feed in the morning at sunrise or return to roost for the night at sunset. New areas in the refuge have been flooded along the tour loop but access is not as convenient and it seems as if there are fewer birds here this year. The weather is very mild with lows in the 30s and highs in the 60s, much different from freezing temperatures of past years. Then there is the wind. The winds came up yesterday afternoon and it blew clouds of dust past our vehicle faster than we were driving. The high winds challenged the birds in flight, challenged us to keep our cameras steady, and covered us and our gear with fine silt. Despite this, I thought the sunburst peeking through the clouds in the late afternoon with Snow Geese and a few Sandhill Cranes scattered around the pond made a pretty scene.
The stairway to the top of the levee on the Chena Lake Recreation Area outside of Fairbanks, Alaska was steep and icy. But, it led to a phenomenal view of the stars and the Northern Lights when we returned a couple of days later at night, climbing the stairs in the dark to the top.
In my wildest imagination, I never thought that I would think a weather forecast of -16° Fahrenheit was a welcome warming trend. However, after spending time in the wee small hours of two mornings photographing the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska at crushingly cold temperatures (-37° the first night) I welcomed the potential for a 21° rise in temperature. Sadly for me, however, the forecast was incorrect and the second night was an even colder -39°. I call this Extreme (Cold) Photography. And, I managed to brave the bone-chilling cold for a few hours to photograph the Northern Lights. And, I must say, it was well worth it. For the most part, I was not too uncomfortable at that temperature. I was prepared, up to a point. My Achilles heel was not my feet but my hands. Despite layers of warm gloves, I had to make some camera adjustments and so I removed my outer glove briefly. I had a thin glove liner on but metal of the camera was as cold as the outside temperature and I had to fumble longer than I wanted to because the darkness prevented seeing the camera body. In addition, I was wearing my glasses and despite using anti-fog spray on them, they somehow gathered moisture then quickly froze making the lenses opaque. So my fingers froze and I was temporarily blinded. On the second night (this shot is from the first night) after quite a while outside, my core got so cold I started to shiver uncontrollably so I told Moose I was going to abandon shooting and return to the vehicle. At those temperatures, you don’t dare turn off your vehicle so it was a welcome haven. Moose must have been cold too because he joined me and showed me how to use Nikon’s Snapbridge app to control our cameras which remained outside while we were warm inside. My question is, why didn’t we try this from the very beginning? In the end, I warmed up, my hands thawed out and except for the tip of one finger that seems to have suffered a bit of frost bite, I am back to normal. It was another unforgettable experience!
The more remote areas of Alaska are dotted with abandoned vehicles. Some are hidden discretely amid stands of birch and pine while others are just off the road. We came across this abandoned vintage utility truck along the Old Richardson Highway at Salcha between Eielson Air Force Base and Delta Junction. The faded star on the door indicates it might have been a military vehicle. Who knows how it got there and why its rusted carcass was abandoned but it made an interesting subject in its snowy graveyard in the weak midday sun and frigid -16° temperature. And although the windows are gone and the body is decayed, the Uniroyal tires appear to be practically new so is it really abandoned or just waiting for the spring thaw?