Utah’s ‘Big Five’ in Winter

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

Fountains of Bellagio with the Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

For the second time in three years Brenda and I travelled to Las Vegas to watch international curling- the Continental Cup of Curling that pits 6 North American teams against 6 World teams over the course of 4 days. It’s similar to a Ryder Cup/President’s Cup (golf) in this case featuring Olympic level teams at the Orleans Arena.

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Mesa Arch in winter, with morning fog, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Snowy landscape at Green River overlook, Canyonlands Nationa Park, Utah, USA

Driving that far, I decided to combine the Vegas visit with some winter photography in State and National Parks nearby. There are 5 famous National Parks in the state of Utah. We towed our trailer with the intention of camping in parks like Zion and Capitol Reef which keep campgrpunds open during the winter. I was under no illusion that it could be cold and snowy and this year’s El Nino seemed to ensure that notion by amplifying winter in that part of the continent. Ontario, on the other hand, was experiencing a mild winter- the first first brown Christmas I have experienced in a long time, but the west seemed to be getting its share of snow and cold temperatures.

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Balanced Rock with fresh snow, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

As a photographer I was looking forward to seeing the fabled red rock canyonlands of Utah with snow and winter conditions. After all, it is a high desert, with little precipitation and the region has been photographed extensivley over the years during the more tourist friendly seasons, so I was hoping for some unique images. It was our first visit in twenty five years (!) and I was not disappointed. Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef were blanketed with fresh or recent snowfalls. Some of the trails and viewpoints were icy and slippery but a pair of slip on ice grips made the footing safer.

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos and winter snow from Inspiration Point at dawn, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

Hoodoos with winter snow and ice fog at dawn, from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA

The snow and cold temperatures drove us into motels at times especially at Bryce Canyon when one of California’s winter storms moved east and dumped about 40 cm of fresh snow, driven by a howling wind. At its peak the weather resembled the worst of what we can get in January in Northern Ontario. But the roads are well maintained in Utah. The only exception was the main park road in Bryce, closed temporaily past the first couple of viewpoints. The park service did an excellent job under the prevailing conditions, maintaining the road in to Sunset Point and even snow-blowing the viewpoint paths.

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Alpenglow in Zion Canyon-Towers of the Virgin, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon wall reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Ice formations along the Pine River with Zion Canyon alpenglow reflections in open water, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

The Big 5 National Parks of Utah were not our only ports of call. For more images of the parks and other locales in the Grand Staircase please visit these galleries on my 500px site. https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/utah-s-big-five-in-winter and https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/red-rock-country-winter-2016.

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Snow dusted canyon walls in the Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

Recent snow in the high desert featuring Twin Rocks, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA

 

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Friday the Thirteenth

I suppose it is bad luck when the morning brings temperatures much lower than they should be for this time of the year. This morning I heard the news reader mention that the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ has returned. I took my iphone out on the deck this morning along with bird seed for some extremely fluffy chickadees, redpolls and pine grosbeaks. I stopped for a photo of our deck thermometer. It is the coldest morning of the year so far and January has come and gone.

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

The deck thermometer at sunrise 2015 02 13

But for me the photographic silver lining in this Friday the 13th cloud is the potential for some good window frost photos from the back window of the garage. We have an unheated garage and the back window looks out on an expanse of snow covering the lawn. My woodshed casts a blue shadow for the first hour or so of morning after sunrise. In addition there is a band of dark spruce trees behind the lawn so I have a choice of backgrounds ranging from pale blue to dark. Sure enough the frost feathers had formed. I remember Dennis Fast lamenting that he has lost the opportunity to photograph the buildup of window-frost that occurs on cold mornings now that he has a newly renovated sunroom with more modern air-tight windows.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Blue shadowed snow background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Garage window frost feathers. Spruce woodland background.

Achieving sharp macro photos is one of the biggest technical challenges for this project. I have to improvise a support for the camera and lens in the optimum position for these photos. I need to support the camera during exposures on a rather unstable wooden workbench. I found that a beanbag on a milk crate, shimmed if necessary to prevent wobble, works better than trying to set the legs of my tripod on the workbench. The micro lens has very limited depth of field, even at f22, so to achieve sharpness everywhere in the frame I need to position the camera and lens so that its sensor is absolutely parallel to the window frost. I use extra boards under the milk crate to add or subtract height depending on where I need to frame the frost, choosing the nicest swirls against a blue or dark background. The backgrounds are so distant that at f22 they remains soft.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

Garage window frost feathers. Sometimes a 2-3 frame focus stack is needed if sharpness varies from top to bottom.

For my frost photography I use a 200mm micro Nikkor with or without a close-up diopter (for extra magnification) that can be attached in front of the lens. The D800 produces such large files that any one can be judiciously cropped if necessary and still produce a Tif of adequate size. I always shoot RAW with a manual exposure of about 0 to +1 depending on the background. I prefer manual White Balance that I can adjust afterwards too. I use my hand to dampen the camera into the bean bag. I use Mirror lockup and a cable release to further ensure sharp results. After each exposure I check the histogram and zoom to 100% on review to assess sharpness (there is a menu setting that activates a button for this action).

Working inside the garage keeps me out of the wind but it is still very cold so I need to dress warmly and use gloves to handle the camera. I like the Freehands photography gloves with flip-back fingertips (held back with neat magnetic buttons). Once I finish I wrap the camera in a big plastic bag and let it warm up inside the house. In a few hours the beautiful frost feathers will sublimate off the window.

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40

Interior window frost with rising sun @ -40C

On and off the deck

 

Male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a branch on the deck, near the nectar feeder

A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a branch on our deck, near the nectar feeder

 

Brenda and I are about to hit the road again and I thought I had better get in a blog post before leaving for the Northwest Territories and Vancouver Island. We usually stay home for the summer, preferring to avoid the crowds, traffic and higher prices.

 

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

A male goldfinch forages among the goldenrods behind our lawn

Brenda enjoys her gardening and we tend a vegetable garden and milkweed patch that was finally visited by monarchs. It has been a cool summer thus far, perhaps following upon the very cold winter and its lingering effects. Blueberries were late this year but the crop was quite good in places. Nonetheless birds, small and large mammals, insects, snakes and spiders continue their seasonal rituals around our property.

 

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

Geranium flowers in a basket after a morning rain

During the summer I stay close to home with the camera too. Not surprisingly, if I am ready and the equipment is at hand there are photo opportunities awaiting in Brenda’s gardens, on the lawn and on the deck.

 

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

A moth rests on red flower petals, chilled by raindrops

Here is a collection of examples from the last couple of months. Please enjoy!

This red squirrel has mastered traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

This red squirrel has mastered the art of  traversing the clothesline to venture out to a hanging seed feeder

On the way out to the seed feeder

It swiftly moves out to the seed feeder

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Sheep laurel and birch near a blueberry patch behind the shed

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Raindrops on fern fronds at the edge of the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Swallowtail butterflies visit a patch of hawkweed I leave un-mowed on the lawn

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda's flowers too

Butterflies are attracted to Brenda’s flowers too

A patch of summer flowers with camera movement during the exposure

A patch of summer flowers photographed with camera movement during the exposure

After a bear left a 'calling card' on our lawn the chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

After a bear left its ‘calling card’ on our lawn this chipmunk moved in and scavenged the seeds in the flop

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.

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.

 

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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Spring is Here

I live in Northern Ontario so even though Spring officially arrives around March 20 I know from experience that March is a winter month. A few years back our Science Centre had a spring equinox party- greet the sunrise and celebrate- except that is was -30℃ that morning. Last year was unusually warm and we were spoiled. After enduring a long and seemingly arduous winter (but fairly normal stats-wise, according to Environment Canada) we were longing for warmer days and no snow as March ended.

 

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A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

A varying hare one day before the first day of spring

I’m always on the lookout for photo opportunities, especially during unusual weather. Some recent personal encounters with nature and my resultant photos could be ‘blamed’ on the quirkiness of a slow spring.

For the first time our maple tree dripped sap and it froze to become an icicle on the tree branches. In other years I have observed chickadees, sapsuckers and squirrels sipping at the drips, but this year things were different. The extremely cold overnight and early morning temperatures froze the dripping sap. I observed chickadees hovering below the dripping ‘sap-sicle’, trying to get a drink. I set up the tripod and long lens and attempted to photograph the action. Out of about 600 frames I captured 3 or 4 like this one. I was frustrated by extremely brief, sporadic encounters, but the keepers were very satisfying.

Chickadee sipping from maple 'sap-sicle'

Chickadee sipping from maple ‘sap-sicle’

I have never had much luck photographing varying hares (snow bunnies) in their white winter fur coats. They are active mostly at night and tend to hide under trees during daylight. These rabbits do become more visible and approachable in early spring. This year I had very approachable hare around the advent of the equinox but with all the snow yet to melt and more coming down, I was fortunate to finally capture some decent white rabbit pictures.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

The Easter Bunny, posing near the house.

Finally with only remnant patches of snow, receding ice in the lakes and ponds and returning birds, I ventured out one early morning to a nearby beaverpond. Because the temperature was well below 0℃ there was abundant frost even though geese were calling and ducks were flying into the pond. When frost is backlit, at a certain angle, it refracts into frozen rainbows of colour. I decided to use a long lens with its shallow depth of field to throw these circles of colour in the background into out-of-focus blobs of colour, turning a rather mundane scene into a late winter-early spring wonderland.

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background

A marsh rush with frost and rainbow refractions in the background