Falkland Islands part 1: Stanley to Volunteer Point

 

Countryside with rainbow

In December Brenda and I joined Joe and MaryAnn McDonlad plus three other participants for a two week wildlife tour of some of the Falkland Islands hotspots. The Falklands is a bucket-list destination for birders and bird photographers. There are 5 species of penguins plus elephant seals, sea lions and many other song birds. Many of the animals display Galapagos-like fearlessness, allowing close approaches, when done with patience and care. It’s been said that one does not need big glass for the bird photography but I brought my 600 Nikkor and used it a lot. It was heavy to carry to some of the colonies but not unbearable and it allowed me to capture tight portraits and bring in the smaller songbirds when necessary. The flexibility and lighter weight of a 150-600 could be an alternative but I have not yet compared such a lens to the 600 for sharpness and contrast.

Residential details in the town of Stanley- painted building walls and fences

The tour began in Stanley with a day trip to Volunteer Point, site of the largest king penguin colony in the Falklands, followed by a day trip to the less visited Cape Bougainville for macaroni penguins, rockhopper penguins, sea lions and king cormorants. Since we were in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. and set about 9:30 p.m. Late December brought long days and plenty of light.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Adult feeding juvenile

The Falklands are very British, bleak and windswept, perhaps similar to the British moorlands. Sheep farming is the dominant industry but tourism is important too, along with other ventures. The terrain is treeless with occasional rock outcrops and the dominant grass is called white grass, whose colour tends to mask the summer greens, furthering the appearance of bleakness. But the terrain is undulating and dotted with small ponds and crossed by occasional streams. Our inter-island FIGAS flights gave us excellent views of the island landscapes.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). The colony

Getting to Volunteer point requires driving 4WD Rovers over a mix of paved and gravel roads (mostly gravel) followed by 10 miles (15 km or so) of slow, careful off-road driving over some very uneven terrain at times, about 2 1/2 hours from Stanley. The anticipation of seeing our first penguins made the final off-road portion of the day-trip excruciatingly drawn out- “Over there? That far still?”

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) The colony

We had about 4 hours with the animals at Volunteer Point but it was a very satisfying start. Joe and MaryAnn advised us to concentrate on the kings but how could you pass up the gentoos feeding their newborn chicks? Impossible.

Gentoo penguin (Psygoscelis papua) with newborn chicks

For a fuller portfolio of images please visit my 500px page and click on the Volunteer Point Gallery https://500px.com/don_johnston/galleries/falkland-island-part-1

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) Marching to the sea

Street Photography with a Tripod

I’m a bit out of my element in an urban environment but as generalist photographer I do not shy away from such settings if I have the opportunity. Such was the case when I joined two friends for a street photography workshop in Central Havana with Dan Callis.

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo) Seawall with fishermen silhouetted against the Vedado neighbourhood. 1/15@f20

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights

Street photography in Central Havana- Calle Escobar with dawn streetlights. ½ s@f5 ISO 1600

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul - Stained glass interior

Iglesia San Francisco de Paul – Stained glass interior 1/30@f16 ISO 200

Street photogrphy in central Havana-

As morning progressed, doors opened to building interiors. 1 s@f16 ISO 400.

I was the only one in the group who used a tripod for the majority of the work that week but I thought I was able to acquire unique images that would not be easy or possible if I was handholding the camera. Certainly with image stabilization and better quality at higher ISOs handholding has become more the norm.

Street photogrphy in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle

Street photography in Old Havana- reflections in a water puddle. 1/80@f18 ISO 400

Street photogrphy in central Havana- Painted wall detail

Painted wall detail 1/4s@f16 ISO 125

While having the camera mounted to my tripod (Gitzo carbon fiber) added some weight, reduced mobility when working a subject and made me more conspicuous in the street I still felt it was the right approach for me. I carried accessories and lenses in my trusty photo vest and felt pretty comfortable for the week in the streets of Havana. It was a fantastic experience, full of colour, atmosphere and friendly people.

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Bicycle taxi and colourful building, panning with camera. ½ s@f16 ISO 100

Here are some of the advantages to using a tripod in the streets:

  1. Once I picked my spot for composition I could ‘fade into’ the background and wait for situations to develop. That could be as simple as waiting for someone to walk into the composition or wait for distracting elements like people or vehicles to move on. While I was initially conspicuous the local people quickly ignored my presence and I could photograph the scene using a cable release so I would remain inconspicuous.
  2. By precisely framing the composition I could make more than one exposure as people moved if I thought it would be better to be able to clone them out in a composite image.
  3. I was able to work at lower ISOs and at longer exposures, in the shadows, in interiors, at night and early morning.
  4. I could set up my composition and wait for peak moments of activity.
A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

A lady peeking through a curtain and security fence. 0.6 s@f11 ISO 800

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

Trained dog on the Obispo promenade with passersby. 1.6 s@f22 ISO 100.

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

I waited for passersby with umbrellas to walk through this scene. 1/10 s@f16 ISO 800

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Revolutionary wall art with blurred pedestrian. 1/13 s@f18 ISO 640

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 3 exposures)

Wall mural on Calle Neptuno with pedestrians cloned out (composite of 2 exposures)

Maybe I missed some spontaneous shots but I think I got photos that fit my style that otherwise would not have been able to capture hand-held. The tripod is not just a useful tool for obtaining sharp images, it is also a useful compositional tool.

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

 

Thanks for reading! Please share with others.

Cape Churchill Polar Bears

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

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

In November 2016 (Nov 17-28) I will be leading a group, through Frontiers North Adventure Tours, to Cape Churchill Manitoba for Polar Bears and other wildlife. We will have our own tundra buggy and be part of a larger group of 40 like-minded individuals. This is considered the ultimate polar bear tour and while it is expensive (CAD 11 799 + tax+ single supplement 450.00) it is all inclusive and exclusive. Only 40 people per year experience this adventure on the Hudson Bay coastline in Wapusk National Park. Frontiers North has perfected the technique of towing their modular Tundra Buggy Lodge 35 km from Polar Bear Point to Cape Churchill, where the big bears, mothers and cubs assemble to await the formation of ice in Hudson Bay.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) Mother and yearling cub, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Our tundra buggy will have a limit of 10 photographers plus guide and driver so there is plenty of room and each photographer will have access to both sides of the vehicle plus the platform at the back. We are out each day, all day, for 7 full days plus some time in the town of Churchill and in the Churchill Wildlife Management area prior to departure for the Cape.

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) Sleeping in snow, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

The tour begins in Winnipeg with a welcome dinner and accommodation included. It ends in Winnipeg with a farewell dinner and overnight hotel. Frontiers North provides (on loan)  winter apparel- parka, boots and pants. Travel to Churchill is by charter aircraft so all your gear can be carried on without carry-on restrictions.

The Cape Churchill Lodge

The Cape Churchill Lodge

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bears, Wapusk NP, Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Please don’t hesitate to contact me through the blog or my website email info@donjohnstonphotos.com if you have questions. I will provide information regarding booking the tour at that time.

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

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

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

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

Va Va Bloom!

Brenda and I are spending over a month in the Hill Country of Texas during the latter part of March through April. We planned our trip to coincide with the spring wildflower bloom. Texas wildflowers: legendary, diverse, vast expanses of colour ranging from orange, magenta, blue, yellow and red.

Roadside oak tree and bluebonnets

Roadside oak tree and bluebonnets

The rainfall patterns in fall and winter are important factors that determine the quality of the spring bloom and we are fortunate this year to have had sufficient precipitation to promise an above average bloom. I feel fortunate, especially after experiencing the brutal winter in Northern Ontario this year. Texas has been in a protracted drought in recent years and the wildflower bloom has been less than optimum these past few years, the last good year occurring in 2010, according to noted wildflower photographer Gary Regner who lives in this area. Gary’s website and blog http://www.texaswildflowerpictures.com/update.htm is a great source of information and updates for the visiting photographer.

Ranch fence and Texas paintbrush

Ranch fence and Texas paintbrush

Oak trees and Texas wildflowers- paintbrush, phlox and bluebonnets

Oak trees and Texas wildflowers- paintbrush, phlox and bluebonnets

The pictures I present at this point have been harvested from areas south of San Antonio. We are still awaiting the full bloom in the Hill Country around Austin, Johnson City and Marble Falls but patches of colour are appearing every day as March slides into April with an expectation of a mid April peak.

Texas paintbrush and bluebonnets surrounding a cactus

Texas paintbrush and bluebonnets surrounding a cactus

Diverse patches of clourful flowers

Diverse patches of clourful flowers

The areas south of San Antonio are flatter with pastures and farmland dominating the scene. Travelling the country roads we find flowers in the roadside and in the fields beyond. When the sky is clear I can include the blue sky. When the light is soft and overcast I try to exclude the white sky, concentrating on more intimate scenes. Focus stacking technique is sometimes necessary to extend the range of sharpness near to far in these flat landscapes.

Texas wildflowers bloom on the grounds of a country residence

Texas wildflowers bloom on the grounds of a country residence

Bluebonnets and paintbrush with spring trees

Bluebonnets and paintbrush with spring trees

The traffic at times is fearsome, especially on the major highways around Austin and San Antonio but the smaller side roads are well maintained, less heavily travelled with wide shoulders for safe pull-offs. With careful planning it has been possible to use secondary routes to avoid the bumper-to-bumper traffic in and out of the big cities.

Texas paintbrush and spring trees, Somerset TX

Texas paintbrush and spring trees, Somerset TX

Texas  bluebonnets and oak trees, near Somerset TX

Texas bluebonnets and oak trees, near Somerset TX

The Bones of the Earth

Grapevine Mountains badlands

Grapevine Mountains badlands

We visited Death Valley this January, camping for five nights at Furnace Creek. With moderate temperatures in the winter this national park is a popular destination for tourists, especially on weekends therefore it is wise to make reservations ahead of time.

 

Eroded formations near Zabriskie Point

Eroded formations near Zabriskie Point

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range

Death Valley National Park is a landscape photography mecca. I was well prepared for my first visit since 1990, having purchased an excellent e-book guide for the park, as well as having drooled over many fine photos made by various other photographers in books and on-line over the years. The dry hills are fantastically eroded by wind and, ironically, rain. It’s one of the driest places on earth with very little vegetation. The valley floor has weird formations created from mineral laden water that flows into the valley but has nowhere to drain and quickly evaporates. Years ago the famed California photographer Galen Rowell made reference to ‘the bones of the earth exposed’ when describing an image he made in Death Valley.

 

Cottonball basin- salt and mud patterns caused by  evapouration from an endorheic pond

Cottonball basin- salt and mud patterns caused by evapouration from an endorheic pond

US Desert Landscape

As I drove the park roads (it is an enormous place to visit) I was immediately attracted to the brown hues in Death Valley, seen in eroded hills and mountain ranges, sand dunes, hardpan and in more intimate abstract images of the basins in the valley floor. Brown is a colour emblematic of earth hence the term ‘earth tones’ we often see referred to in home décor and fabric descriptions.

 

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud tiles

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud tiles

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud and sand

Mesquite Sand dunes- hardpan mud and sand

Photographers often search for more vibrant colour like red, orange and green. As I write this I bask in the warm glow of several hundred images made during the northern Ontario autumn, where reds, oranges and golds predominate. But in Death Valley I found that brown, while more restrained and less vivid, certainly symbolizes the ‘bones of the earth’ on display.

 

20 Mule Team Canyon

20 Mule Team Canyon

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range Artists Drive with creosote shrubs

Eroded foothills of the Amargosa Range Artists Drive with creosote shrubs

Please enjoy this selection of my images celebrating the colour brown as it is found in many of the landscape formations in Death Valley.

Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon

Cottonball Basin polygons at sunrise

Cottonball Basin polygons at sunrise

near Mesquite Sand Dunes

near Mesquite Sand Dunes

Amargosa Range badlands

Amargosa Range badlands

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.