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

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