Dip Snack!

Brenda and I are foreigners when it comes to wildlife encounters in the deep south. We’re used to blackflies and black bears but not cactus and venomous snakes. I suppose common sense should work well- stay on the path and stay alert, but inexperience can lead to potential trouble. While our main objective in South Texas was bird photography I did hope to supplement my species list with non avian subjects like tarantula, horned lizard, scorpion and/or rattlesnake, so long as things were done safely.

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson's ranch

A tarantula photographed under controlled conditions at Hardy Jackson’s ranch

It was our fourth day of Sue Jarrett’s South Texas Birding Safari in Steve Bentsen and Hardy Jackson’s bird blinds. Steve is the guide and owner of Dos Venadas ranch and Hardy along with his mom Nora Nell run the Campos Viejos ranch. Both these ranches are beautifully set up for photographing birds and other critters that might visit their ponds. It was late in the day at Dos Venadas when we decided to start packing equipment to meet Steve in his ATV for the ride back to our vehicle. About an hour earlier we listened to green jays and other birds- at least five species- causing a raucous commotion in the tree beside our blind. I guessed they were annoyed at the presence of a potential predator such as a snake or an owl, but we could see nothing in the tree.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

Bathing cardinals are highlights of the South Texas bird photography tours.

We did not look under the tree. Coiled under the tree beside the path out was an enormous diamondback rattlesnake. I was within a metre and about to walk right by her when I caught the movement of the snake pulling her head back. I froze. I gingerly stepped back and informed Brenda behind me what I had encountered. To my horror she approached me, flicking her tongue. Then she retreated to the coiled position. Once I felt out of danger I whipped out my iPhone to send a text message to Steve. After all there appeared to be a photo opportunity developing.

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

The snake alerted me to her presence near the path by pulling back her head

My text to Steve was intended to inform him of the coiled diamondback. In the excitement of the encounter I did not pay attention to the body of my text message before pressing Send. I thought I had typed “Big diamondback near the path by the hose. Coiled”

In his reply Steve queried “Dip Snack?”. Time for a head slap. The smart phone’s Auto Correct feature had changed ‘Diamondback’ to ‘Dip Snack’. Steve was wondering what I meant by a coiled dip snack. “Diamondback” I replied, this time making sure the iPhone did not override my spelling. “OK. Coming” he replied.

Steve (a practicing veternarian and experienced photographer/naturalist) figured the snake was female, one of the biggest that he has encountered. She was too large to handle with his snake tongs. Fortunately she was fairly docile and came back to the edge of the path so the rest of the participants could get some pictures in the fading light. She never displayed any aggression or tail rattling. Probably this was one of her regular ambush locales for nabbing unwary prey coming down the path to the small pond near the blind.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

The snake crawled back to this position and the other tour photographers got some shots.

After all, we were warned by the birds.

Interstate Rest Stops

Greetings dear readers. Apologies for once again neglecting the blog. Brenda and I have been travelling extensively this past year and some things like the blog have been placed on the back burner. The good news is that I will have a lot of new material to write about and post pictures about. Photo adventures in South Texas and Arkansas, Smokies (Autumn), Nevada, California and the Galapagos Islands should provide fodder for future posts. I’ll be spending much of this summer editing and catching up on the huge backlog of recent material.

This entry is about making photographs in unlikely places such as Interstate Rest Stops. Brenda and I will shortly be travelling to Arkansas and Texas for spring scenery and birds. We usually travel to our US destinations via the Interstate highway system. Occasionally we will drive secondary roads if there is a possibility we are missing something on the way. The Interstate Highway system is a fast, efficient and reasonably safe means of getting from Point A to B. Interstates can be boring from a photographic standpoint, although some, like I70 (in Utah) pass through jaw dropping landscapes. Interstates generally prohibit stopping, unless there is an emergency. I don’t think a state trooper would be amused if I tried to explain that my emergency stop was for taking a picture.

While driving to the Smokies in springtime it became apparent that the best redbud in bloom would be found well north, in this case Ohio

While driving to the Smokies in springtime it became apparent that the best redbud in bloom would be found well north, in this case at an I75 Ohio Rest Stop.

The system includes Rest Stops every 50 miles (80 km) or so and these are well maintained and convenient places to change drivers, go to the bathroom or have a bite to eat if weather is cooperating. There can be photo opportunities at rest stops. Often there is information describing something of historic or geographic significance in the area. Usually there is a picnic area and a place to exercise the dog and stretch one’s legs. One needs to set aside pre-conceived notions about these places and have the camera ready if opportunities arise. My tripod and camera bag are always accessible when we stop.

While we had lunch I tried to time the passing vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, between the oak trees

While we had lunch in North Dakota I tried to time the passing vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, between the oak trees

Here is a selection of other images I have made over the years at these Rest Stops. Please enjoy.

A stand of young trees in Minnesota

A stand of young trees in Minnesota

Late autumn colour and early snow in Michigan

Late autumn colour and early snow in Michigan along I75.

Frost for hundreds of km in North Dakota. Unfortunately it petered out before Roosevelt National Park was reached.

Frost for hundreds of km along I94 in North Dakota. Unfortunately it petered out before Roosevelt National Park was reached.

The NC/SC state line rest stop proved to be a welcome respite from a late winter snow storm in the Carolinas.

The NC/SC state line rest stop proved to be a welcome respite from a late winter snow storm in the Carolinas.

This I 25 Rest Stop was an ideal locale for photographing the fresh snow near the Rio Salado sand dunes in New Mexico.

This I 25 Rest Stop was an ideal locale for photographing the fresh snow near the Rio Salado sand dunes in New Mexico.

Legendary Cape Churchill

Cape Churchill at sunset

A Tundra Buggy at Cape Churchill at sunset

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

The Tundra Buggy Lodge

Every year the polar bear viewing season culminates with a tour to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. The adventure tour is run by Frontiers North and it is first class in terms of accommodation, food and polar bear viewing. The Polar Bear Lodge consists of 4 modules on wheels, together with some modules for staff and support. Two bunkhouses, decked out in Hudson Bay colours, a lounge and a dining car, along with the support vehicles are towed by Tundra Buggies, in a convoy 35 km from the Churchill Wildlife Management Area to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park. The logistics of such a trek are awesome. There has to be enough ice to support these large vehicles as they are towed across shallow bays, yet the operators cannot schedule this tour too late in the season otherwise the bears will have migrated out onto Hudson Bay.

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

Mother and cub investigate a Tundra Buggy

About thirty paying clients from North America and around the world met in Winnipeg, flew by charter to Churchill, were outfitted in complimentary Canada Goose parkas, and were towed out to the Cape for six days of dawn to dusk wildlife and scenic photography in a bleak, windswept subarctic environment. The friendly, professional staff of Frontiers North tended to all of our needs.

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Windswept Cape Churchill near sunset

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

Willows and snow along the Hudson Bay coast

We had excellent light on some days and encountered a nice variety of wildlife, from arctic hare, arctic and red foxes, snowy owl, ptarmigan and the bears. Big males together with mothers and their cubs. For the most part the bears looked fit and healthy. Part of the expedition included a group from Polar Bears International, who provided expert background updates on the status of polar bears, sea ice and the research that is conducted year-round on the bears. Our group of nine was recruited by Canadian wildlife photographer John Marriott who was unable to be with us, due to unforeseen family circumstances. John recruited a dynamic, knowledgeable and fun-loving group of wildlife photographers who spent 8 days together, in the capable hands of driver Bob Debets and guides Haley, JoAnne and pro photographer Richard Day who each accompanied us every third day.

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus

Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow

The sun rises about 8:30 in November in northern Manitoba and sets about 3:30. The wind blows constantly but we were comfortable in our Tundra Buggy, even though the temperatures (excluding wind chill) were in the -20s Celsius. Photography was done through open windows, using bean bags for support of our long lenses. There was an option to photograph from the back deck. I sometimes chose that option, then being able to set up a tripod. One of the attractions of the Cape Churchill tour is the opportunity to see and photograph polar bears at first light in the morning and last light near sunset. We were fortunate this year to get both.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) heading to Hudson Bay

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- polar bear wandering along the coast at sunset

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Sparring males

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) running in the snow

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus),

The red fox might be an indication of climate change, expanding its range northwards into the arctic. We witnessed the red fox dismembering and eating an arctic fox it had killed near the Cape. Disturbing but compelling to see.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon an Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Some bears were nicknamed BABs- “Big A** Bears”. Cape Churchill is famous for its big males. These guys steer clear of the town of Churchill, choosing to migrate out to the ice through Cape Churchill instead. Once the Big Males have moved through, they are followed by females and cubs.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) waiting for the sea ice

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) near Hudson Bay

A big male

A big male

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus), Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

It appeared that the polar bears were going to have a slightly extended ice season this year. I had a dream (nightmare?) before the tour began of seeing the last bear at the Cape disappear into the ice fog as it receded from sight, leaving us on land as it returned to its seal hunting territory in Hudson Bay. That dream became a reality on our last day at the Cape.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Radio-collared mother and yearling, second-year cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Yearling cub

Other polar bear images from this trip may be viewed by linking through to my 500px site. http://500px.com/don_johnston/sets/cape_churchill_manitoba_animals

A photographer’s perspective on Weeds

Following up on my last two postings on the subject of the monarch butterfly and its host plants I thought I would post some images of noxious and invasive weeds, taken over the years. In some locales these plants can be common. Often, under the right conditions, they can make nice photographic subjects. I don’t shy away from photographing invasives and noxious weeds. A weed is a flowering plant (usually) in the wrong place, such as a garden, crop or lawn. On a more sinister side, invasives such as purple loosestrife can seriously disrupt natural ecosystems like wetlands, and their control becomes more important. Photographing these plants can help draw attention to the ecological issues. Agriculture has classified plants like common milkweed as noxious, giving them special status for control programs. Unfortunately there can be some collateral damage, such as loss in monarch butterfly numbers. As always, with complex problems such as these, there are no simple answers.

Here are some pictures of noxious weeds (classified usually by state or province or country) as well as some invasive plants.

Sunrise and Queen Annes lace flower. (Pennsylvania)

Sunrise and Queen Annes lace flower. (Pennsylvania)

Purple loosestrife is pretty but deadly to wetland ecosystems. The infestation in North America has necessitated the use of specific insect controls- beetles and weevils that feed only on this plant, but are themselves non-native.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in an Ontario wetland.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) in an Ontario wetland.

Orange and yellow hawkweed are invasive plants in North America, but their flowers are visited by many beautiful butterflies.

Mixed colonies of windblown yellow and orange hawkweed at base of rock outcrop

Mixed colonies of windblown yellow and orange hawkweed at base of rock outcrop (time exposure with wind)

Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) perched and nectaring on orange hawkweed

Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) perched and nectaring on orange hawkweed

One reason the milkweed is classified noxious is because it can propagate through the production of airborne seeds.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Bursting seed pod

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Bursting seed pod

Roadsides and other marginal habitats are often places where invasive plants get a toe-hold.

Roadside wildflowers: Daisies, Birdsfoot trefoil and vetch.

Roadside wildflowers: Daisies, Birdsfoot trefoil and vetch.

Hare's-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) Flowering colonies in Olympic Park on the road to Hurricane Ridge

Hare’s-foot clover (Trifolium arvense) Flowering colonies in Olympic Park on the road to Hurricane Ridge

Russian thistle is unwelcome in South Dakota’s badlands ecosystem.

Russian Thistle seedlings in cracked mud

Russian Thistle seedlings in cracked mud. (Badlands National Park, SD)

Oxeye daisies and dandelions are so common we often forget they are non-native. The dandelion flower and leaves have some culinary and medicinal uses.

Large colony of roadside oxeye daisies blowing in strong wind (time exposure)

Large colony of roadside oxeye daisies blowing in strong wind (time exposure)

Oxeye daisies, star chickweed and hawkweed in urban roadside habitat

Oxeye daisies, star chickweed and hawkweed in urban roadside habitat.

 

Dandelions on lawn with flowering serviceberry bushes.

Dandelions on lawn with flowering serviceberry bushes. (Manitoulin Island, Ontario)

 

Shortly I am off to Churchill for an exciting polar bear photo tour (with John Marriott). Brenda and I just returned from autumn in the (very busy, but very pleasant) Smokies in Tennessee. Blog entries to follow, when there is time. Thanks for stopping by.

A late-emerging Monarch

As a follow-up to my last post I’d like to announce the successful emergence of the cucumber patch monarch. This is the chrysalis yesterday. The adult butterfly can be clearly seen through the now-transparent chrysalis.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Chrysalis

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Chrysalis

 

Later that afternoon I saw that the adult had successfully emerged and was clinging to the empty chrysalis. It rained yesterday, but the cucumber leaves provided protection for the butterfly.

Canadian Insects (Ontario)

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Emerged adult clinging to empty chrysalis.

Last night turned very cold and windy. Once the wind subsided it was cold enough for frost to paint our garage roof white. Surprisingly, the cucumbers and beans survived the night, as did the monarch. This afternoon it flew off, hopefully to begin its North American migration.

Canadian Insects (Ontario)

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Adult awaiting first flight

All photos were made with Nikon D800 and 200mm micro lens.

 

Milkweed Garden

Brenda found another monarch chrysalis a few days ago, hanging from a cucumber leaf. It is late in the season and most of the milkweeds are going to seed. Frost is threatening so we hope the adult will emerge in time. Summer of 2013 was a relatively poor year for us on the monarch butterfly front, with noticeably fewer adults seen flitting around our milkweed patch and fewer caterpillars observed chewing milkweed leaves and flowers. These observations jive with disquieting reports in the media about plummeting monarch numbers province wide, with fingers pointed at the usual suspects- habitat loss and agribiz practices along the monarch’s migration routes.

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. chrysallis

Milkweed is classified as a noxious weed in Ontario. I innocently brought a seed case home a few years ago. The seeds are so darn photogenic. Because the Sudbury Region’s soils are acidic (great for blueberries, not good for milkweed) there are few populations of common milkweed in our area. It has thrived near our garden. Now we have a burgeoning patch of milkweed, which invades our garden and lawn, but we pull and mow when necessary and let it thrive since it is the host plant for the beautiful and famous monarch butterfly. This January, Brenda and I will touring to California where we will participate in Cathy and Gordon Illg’s Beauty and the Beasts Photo Tour that will include two days photographing monarchs in their western winter refuge.

Canadian Plants (Ontario)

Even though milkweed is noxious it is attractive to us in so many ways. The flowers are lovely and fragrant. Milkweed attracts many other small critters that feed and live among the plants- hummingbird moths, other butterfly species, spiders and beetles. And of course it is the host plant for the monarch.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Flowers

Here are some favourites from over the past few years. Most were made with a 200 mm Nikkor micro. I prefer soft, overcast light.

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Staying With the Plan

Since I last posted Spring has blasted through and swept winter aside. Almost two weeks or so of above average temperatures in early May has led to an avalanche of green in the aspens and birches. During this time I have been setting the alarm for pre-dawn excursions to spots close to home. A few days ago I decided to revisit a beaver pond as the temperatures hovered just above freezing with clear skies. I expected fog and was not disappointed. But as I parked and set up and assessed the situation I realized that conditions would not (apparently) be as promising as I anticipated. There seemed to be too much fog

 

 

 

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Out of desperation I decided to stay and make the best of this mediocre dawning. I reasoned that if I weighed anchor and charted a course to other destinations on my short list I might be travelling during sunrise and wasting what good light there might be that morning.

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Shortly the sun began to add colour to the sky and peek through the fog. It was now producing sufficient definition in the shoreline trees to attempt landscape images containing discernable features.

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The one picture element I thought might rescue this image was a lone Canada goose floating motionless near a small rock outcrop. Although small, it’s silhouette contrasted well with the fog. Likely the goose was behaving as a sentinel for his mate on her nest. As the sun rose a little higher the goose held its position. Soon the motionless goose commanded more of my attention as the sun turned the mist to a golden colour.

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As the sun continued to rise above the mist I realized that I had better exclude it from the images as it was overpowering the digital sensor, even with the use of a graduated neutral density filter.

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Fortunately I packed my long lens that morning and I began using it to isolate the goose in the sunlit fog.

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By moving my tripod a couple of meters I could omit the sun’s direct reflection.

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Finally, back to shorter lenses before the sun got too high.

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