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

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

Working the Winter road in Yellowstone

Yes, I know it’s summer and we are trying hard to forget winter, but I am always a few months behind in my image editing so here is a posting that re-visits the winter of 2012.

Dead snags and snow above Canary Spring

After five days of exciting and productive winter animal photography (blog post coming) at Animals of Montana near Bozeman in late February-early March Brenda and I drove to Gardiner for some winter photography along Yellowstone Park’s only open road. The 50-mile road from Gardiner’s Roosevelt entrance to Cooke City is maintained by the Park Service with plows and sanders to allow the residents of Cooke City access to Gardiner and beyond. While the road is well maintained it does have steep, slippery sections, especially in areas that do not have much exposure to the sun. Elsewhere, winds drift snow across the road, especially in the Columbia Blacktail Deer Plateau. Occasionally the drifts block a lane thus requiring attention from maintenance crews. Driving with winter tires is recommended. Some pull-outs are kept clear and many of these will be occupied by wildlife (wolf) watchers with spotting scopes. Winter visitors may also opt for snow-coach tours into the interior from Gardiner-Mammoth or from West Yellowstone.

Coyote (Canis latrans) Trotting along Park Road

One of Yellowstone’s major animal attractions is the grey wolf, re-introduced to the ecosystem in the mid 90s. Casual visitors such as us have little opportunity for close encounters. Most of my sightings have been distant. We were lucky this time with two encounters at close range, one of which turned into a ‘grab-shot’ photo opportunity. The lone wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle and I had time to set up the long lens before it ambled off. Normally Park rules prohibit approaches closer than 100 yards, but in this case the wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle. Unexpected crossings like this emphasize the need to drive with care and be observant. It’s important to have a camera within reach and bean bag or window mount too.

Lone wolf walking on Columbian Blacktail Deer Plateau in late winter

Of course we had to endure (with envy) the ‘you have been here yesterday’ comments from other visitors. Wolves had killed an elk in the Gardner River Valley. Coyotes, magpies and ravens were scavenging the carcass by the time we passed by.

I regard myself as a generalist photographer. While I enjoy wildlife photography I don’t let it dominate my approach to seeing nature. I am also attracted to landscapes, flora and abstract subjects. I try to balance my photography when I make short visits such as this to exotic locales like Yellowstone. It saves me from being disappointed at not seeing or photographing the ‘star species’ and often yields just as satisfying images.

Thermophyllic algae and bacteria encrusting dead grasses in an Upper Terraces hot springs at Mammoth

Even though 2011-12 had such a warm and unusual winter we were fortunate to have fresh snow in early March. Over four days we experienced variations in weather, from clear skies to near-whiteout snow squalls. Gardiner is not very busy at this time so motels were inexpensive and rooms were available, although we did reserve ahead. The Park closes winter operations into the interior by mid March and we were surprised to see that establishments like the Mammoth Hotel actually close up for a few weeks while interior roads are plowed and made ready for the spring tourist visitation.

A herd of elk (Cervus elaphus) walking in a line on a snowy slope on the Columbia Blacktail Plateau

Please visit my 500px pages for a wider selection of images, including: Yellowstone animals and Yellowstone Scenics. We will be travelling west shortly so I will be taking about a month-long break from blog posting, unless I have some time and Internet access.

Bosque not always for the Birds

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is the winter home for thousands of waders and waterfowl. The visitor center boasts the bird counts and the snow geese, sandhill cranes and ducks number in the tens of thousands. It is a magnificent spectacle, drawing nearly as many birders and bird photographers (slight exaggeration). The bird photographer needs to arrive an hour or so before sunrise just to secure a decent vantage point for the awesome ‘blast offs’ or fly outs by the geese and later the cranes as they take off to feed in nearby grain fields.

This is what the photographers come for.

Dawn Blast off- Ducks and sandhill cranes

We had the ‘pleasure’ of photographing Bosque under unusual winter conditions. Sure, the refuge gets snow on occasion but never in the amounts, coupled with the extreme cold temperatures as we experienced in early December this year. Our Bosque veteran tour leaders, Gordon and Cathy Illg remarked that not only have they never seen conditions like these before, they have never seen pictures of conditions like these before.

Frosted cottonwoods near the Flight Deck

While I love photographing wildlife I am also partial to landscapes, plants, and abstract patterns. The unusual conditions created by that memorable winter blizzard persuaded me to divert my attention from the birds, for periods of time, to capture some amazing scenes, without feathers. Here is a small selection I hope the reader will enjoy.

Frozen crane ponds with the Chupadera MountainsFrosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Cottonwood at dawn

Frosted sunflower seed heads near icy pond

Frosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Frosted cottonwood with sunstar