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

Backyard Animals- Summer 2017

In the spirit of celebrating photography done close to home I offer a small selection of animal subjects photographed in and around our backyard this summer and early fall. Producing quality images from such close proximity to the house does depend on a number of factors, many of which can be controlled by the photographer.

Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Eating a wild blueberry. I placed a piece of old log on my deck rail and offered a few blueberries.

I always have my cameras ready and easily accessible when we notice a photo opportunity. Battery charged, memory card formatted, lens attached, tripod ready for action. These encounters are often fleeting.

Horned clubtail dragonfly (Arigomphus cornutus) Female preying on another dragonfly. After noticing the subject I grabbed my 200 micro on a tripod and approached slowly. I had about 10 minutes.

It’s important to provide habitat for local critters. Things like feeders (when bears are not around), butterfly gardens, trees and shrubs for cover are important. Also important is good local knowledge of animals and their habits. Having a solid naturalist background gives the nature/wildlife photographer an advantage.

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging in spring maple tree

Large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) Mating pair on a milkweed leaf. The milkweed patch is a hive of ecological activity.

I sometimes create natural perches or settings for animals like chipmunks and frogs. Some natural treats like blueberries help coax them to the preferred spot.

Wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus or Rana sylvatica). Sitting in some dried leaves I collected.

Most important is having great spotters like my wife Brenda. She noticed the sharp-shinned hawk flying into the tree with its prey. My son Matthew spotted the very well camouflaged wood frog near our garden.

Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) Eating a songbird it had captured.

And of course, luck plays an important role. While I was waiting for the chipmunk to climb up to the log for some blueberries I noticed a deer fawn approaching the back yard from the bush behind. It stayed out on our lawn, eating some grass and bouncing around for a good half hour before it wandered off.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Curious fawn visiting our rural backyard.

While trying to photograph chickadees eating pine seeds (again spotted by Brenda!) I noticed a pair of ruffed grouse eyeing each other in the margins of our driveway. They worked their way down towards me, oblivious to my presence.

Black capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) Foraging for seeds in red pine tree cones

Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Foraging for pine cones in a red pine

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) Two individuals confronting one another in early autumn.

Christmas Images

Seasons greetings, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to one and all!

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

Christmas morning light on trees in the yard

After the family traditions on Christmas morning have been attended to there is sometimes an opportunity for me to do some nature photography, something that I always ask permission from the family before venturing forth, sometimes just on the deck, sometimes in the driveway, never too far from home nor for too long.

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

Christmas morning light and fresh snow on spruce trees

 

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year to be outside. The winter weather over the past 8 years- the time period from which these images were chosen- has been variable in the extreme. Cold days, El Nino warm days. Days with little snow but morning frost and days with beautiful fresh snow. This year is promising to be gloomy and wet but I am hoping the rain turns to snow in time.

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

A red fox lounging on a small roadside mound

 

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

A chickadee spreads its wings near the bird feeder

Through these past 8 years, when the conditions were excellent and the light was magical, I knew I had to forgo some of the family traditions and take time to make some pictures. Please enjoy these images made on a very special day.

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Junction Creek snowfall 2012

Ice formations along Junction Creek

Ice formations along Junction Creek

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

A dusting of snow on grasses along the driveway

Garden grasses

Garden grasses

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

Tree shadows on snow drifts in the yard

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

An ice puddle at the edge of the lawn in an El Nino year

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

Santa Claus takes the kids for a ride

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.

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