Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

Friday Foto Talk: Subjective vs. Objective, Part II   6 comments

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

Scenic ranch country, SW Colorado.

This is the second of two parts on how to approach your photo subjects.  Check out Part I for an introduction to this fairly subtle but important topic.  Thinking about how you tell the story of your subjects is a key step in any serious photographer’s journey.  The reason why I’m not calling this “literal” vs. “abstract” or “interpretive” is that it’s a much more subtle distinction than that.  Now let’s look at a few specific examples.

Example 1:  Fall in Colorado

Last autumn I traveled through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which is my current favorite for fall colors.  The image at top is an objective take.  It’s a level-on, standard composition.  It’s shot in good but not unusually awesome light.  I zoomed in to exclude more of the same.  I’m just trying to show the mountains and trees being their spectacular selves.

In the shot below, I zoomed in again, focusing on the contrast between the golden aspen and green spruce trees, all set off against new-fallen snow.  It’s somewhere between objective and subjective.  The light is flat and there is mist in the air, perfect for showing colors and textures.  The composition excludes all but the trees, giving it even more objectivity.

Fall color and the season's first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

Fall color and the season’s first snowfall: San Juan Mtns., Colorado.

 

However, the photo is partly subjective because of its focus on the snow.  It shows the transition from fall to winter.  I feel pretty strongly that transitions are the most interesting photo subjects.  So this overlap of seasons, common to mountains, naturally attracted me.  That’s a subjective viewpoint and one that plenty of people share.  I timed my trip in part to see this transition.  I also knew that most other photographers, who time their visits for the peak of fall color, had come and gone.

Towards the end of autumn, I was in the far west of the state poking around the Colorado River.  I found an off-trail route to some bluffs overlooking the river, with beautiful cottonwoods lining the banks.  Being late fall, clear cold nights caused dense fog to form each morning along the river.  The fog combined with the viewpoint shooting downward gave me the chance to abstract the form of the trees, which being cottonwoods were still in full leaf.  I think in our enthusiasm for fall color we often lose sight of the beautiful forms, which is one reason why I like going post-peak when leaves begin to fall, revealing the ‘bones’ of the trees.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in the fog.

Cottonwoods form silhouettes in dense fog along the Colorado River near Fruita, CO.

 

Now for two examples from a recent stay in one of my favorite places in the world, Death Valley National Park in the California desert:

Example 2: Wildflower Bloom

Winter rains from the current El Nino have led to a great bloom of wildflowers in Death Valley this year.  Some are calling it a “super-bloom”.  I’m not too sure about that.  We’re already calling nearly every full moon a “super-moon”.  But you can’t deny that the flower display is unusual this year and certainly worth photographing.

One subjective take on it is fairly obvious.  Death Valley is well named.  It’s an arid and hot place with sparse life adapted to the harsh waterless conditions.  When colorful flowers burst forth literally overnight from the dusty-dry desert floor (and later die off, just as suddenly, after going to seed), it’s hard to avoid thinking about themes of renewal, impermanence, and the yin-yang of life and death.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

A simple bloom breaks through the desert floor of Death Valley, California.

The image above highlights this subjective view of the bloom.  A fairly narrow aperture helped, but increasing the camera-subject distance relative to the subject-background distance did even more to give the cracked desert floor a prominent role in the image.  Otherwise with the macro lens it would’ve been too blurred.

I also did a few objective close-ups, with defocused and indistinct background (image below).  This was to highlight the flowers for their objective qualities.  After all they’re vibrant and colorful no matter where they happen to bloom.

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA

Desert Gold, Death Valley, CA.  Canon 100 mm. macro lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/13, ISO 200.

 

Example 3: Pupfish Pools

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park a bunch of times but have never really focused on pupfish and their habitats.  Pupfish are small, active little fish that resemble guppies.  They are evolutionary left-overs from Ice Age times when enormous lakes filled the valleys here.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manley.  Through the millennia, as Lake Manley slowly dried up, the few surviving fish split into separate species that now live in spring-fed perennial pools and small streams scattered around the region.

The species of pupfish here are all endemic.  Endemic means they live nowhere else, and because of that they’re quite rare and protected by U.S. law.  Pupfish are also quite the cute little guys!  They’re named for their playful antics.  But if you look closely you can see the scars.  What looks like play is actually aggressive territorial behavior.  Their small size and active movements make pupfish difficult to photograph, at least without getting into the water with them (which is illegal of course).

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

Pupfish habitat: Ash Meadows, Nevada.

I can’t think of the wetlands where pupfish live without imagining what things were like when Lake Manley existed.  It was filled with fish and other life which attracted huge flocks of birds and other animals (including humans, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers living along the lakeshore).  Today’s pupfish pools can in a way be thought of as windows into that distant time.

These ideas have a way of influencing photography in a subjective and often unconscious way.  In the image above (which also appears in a previous post), I drew close to the deep blue pool, shooting to capture the steam rising over the warm water on a frosty morning.  I furthered the slightly mysterious nature of the image with editing on the computer.

The largest spring-fed pool in Death Valley: Saratoga Springs.

In the next image (above), I got close to the ubiquitous reeds lining the wetlands and set them in stark contrast with the deep blue water.  I consider this one partly subjective because it almost looks as if it’s not really a desert environment, like it could be part of ancient Lake Manley.  That was really luck.  During that trip early spring storms moved through the area, filling the springs and decorating the high Panamint Range with snow.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

Reeds at Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park, California.

When I shot the image above I was observing the pupfish.  I decided to get subjective in an abstract way and used camera movement to impart the feel of being there.  I was surrounded by reeds taller than I am, waving in the breeze.

I wasn’t purely interpretive though.  I captured a few documentary (objective) shots of the springs as well as the fish themselves (mostly getting frustrated by the little scamps!).  For the last photo at bottom, I climbed up a nearby hill at sunrise and used a wider angle in order to show the springs in their desert surroundings.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

Pupfish showing off his iridescent blue flank.

 

Let me know what you think.  How important is this to you?  Do you mostly have an objective or subjective approach to photography?  Or something in between?  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley National Park.

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The Alvord Desert, Oregon   7 comments

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays and the desert prepares for night.

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays as the desert prepares for night.

When I need some wide-open space, I come to this corner of Oregon that we call the state’s “outback”.  I drove through on my way to the Rockies recently and revisited a few old haunts.  But this was the first time I had actually camped on the playa of the Alvord Desert.  While this region is indeed technically a desert (averaging 7 inches/yr. precipitation), I’m not sure why they chose to call this particular place the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord part is predictable, named after a general from the East, from the Civil War no less.  But the desert part is curious.  The whole region is classified as a cold semi-arid desert.  It’s dry and it’s high (4000 feet/1220 meters).  But the area named the Alvord Desert is actually a large playa, a dry lake bed.  So why not call it the Alvord Playa?

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Climate & Geology

The region’s aridity is caused by the rain shadow of the Cascades and other mountain ranges.  The Alvord itself is in the very dramatic rain shadow of Steen’s Mountain, which rises directly west.  (The Steen’s is also a very spectacular destination in it’s own right.)  The Alvord is a spectacular example of a playa, so dry and flat in summer and fall that you can easily drive and land a plane on it.  In fact, it’s been used to set land speed records, like the Bonneville Salt Flats down in Utah.

The salty playas of this region of North America form because erosion from surrounding mountains dumps fine sediment into the bottom of the basin and the shallow water that collects there cannot run out.  (This isn’t called the Great Basin for nothing.) The water evaporates, leaving behind salt flats and quickly drying muds.

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of "wind-riders".

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of “wind-riders”.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord.  I can't imagine the speeds in heavy wind.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord. I can’t imagine the speeds in heavy wind!

The Alvord lies near the northern extent of the the Basin and Range province, a term geologists prefer over Great Basin.  Extending down through Nevada and eastern California, and over into western Utah, it is a series of linear mountain ranges and adjacent basins formed by block faulting.  Huge sections of the earth’s crust rise up while on the other side of the fault the adjacent basins drop down.  It happens this way because the crust just below is being stretched and rifted apart, much like the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Since this shallower part of the crust is brittle, faults form.  Earthquakes along these faults still happen, so it is an ongoing process.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the "pediment", the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen's Mountain.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the “pediment”, the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen’s Mountain.

Reasons to Visit

I hope you get to visit this region one day.  Other than the glorious skies and wide-open spaces, it has a lot to offer.  It is a fantastic place for bird-watching in springtime (March/April).  Just northwest of the Alvord are huge & temporary, shallow lakes, which attract large flocks of migrating birds.  The area around Steen’s Mountain is home to Kiger mustangs, wild horses that are known far and wide for their spirit and strength. You’ll probably hear coyotes every night you camp.  And you might see a few buckaroos working cattle from horseback, as has been done here ever since white settlement in the 19th century.  The area is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches.

Hope you have a great week.  Thanks for reading!

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where recent rains have left small pools and channels of water.

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where small pools and channels of water from an early fall storm try to make their way out onto the playa.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon's border with Nevada.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon’s border with Nevada.

In Praise of the Prickly Pear   8 comments

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Hot pink prickly pear cactus bloom, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

I recently realized something.  I have until recently avoided photographing a worthy subject just because it is common. It is the lowly beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family.  It grows across the interior western United States, touching the Pacific Coast in southern California.  It took quite awhile for me to come around on this rather unspectacular cactus.  But now I am taking the time to notice its subtle charm.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus, a member of the prickly pear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

You see, I’ve noticed that this plant and I have some things in common.  It is on the surface unpleasant when you first glance its way, having a heavily creased face and a generally sour appearance.  It’s also worth avoiding at certain times, such as early mornings before it’s had a cup of coffee.   But it cannot completely conceal a certain rough charm, when the light is right.  And its interior is pulpy and soft, in stark contrast to the face it shows to the general public.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

The wrinkles of a prickly pear that has gone to purple in Zion Canyon, Utah.

More than once I’ve squatted down to look at something on the desert floor, and had my bottom stuck with the painful spines of a small prickly pear I hadn’t even noticed.  I’ve also been annoyed when huge prickly pears blocked my way, forcing me to detour.  In many drier areas of the American West, beaver tail is ubiquitous, the most common spiny succulent growing.

The plant can take on amazing colors, particularly just after flowering, or when it’s stressed and the chlorophyll drains out of its body.  When a plant loses its green chlorophyll, other pigments (such as anthocyanins) impart vibrant purples, pinks, reds and other shades.  In fact, this is precisely what happens when a leaf goes from green to red or yellow in autumn.

After the bloom: a prickly pear's dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

After the bloom: a prickly pear’s dried flowers show their version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

Prickly pears are wrinkly and spiny, and the beaver tail is no exception.  The spines keep most animals from eating it (for the moisture it contains inside) and the wrinkles are an adaptation that lessens the drying effect of desert winds.  These features give it an interesting look when the light is right.  Like other photographers, I mostly have ignored the prickly pear.  That is until it blooms.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

Springtime in the deserts of the American Southwest means hot pink beaver tail cactus are in bloom.

In the deserts of the southwestern U.S.A., prickly pear blooms in late March or April – springtime.  The amount of winter rainfall and other factors influence how showy the blooms are, but the size and color (usually pinkish) of the flowers never disappoints anyone.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to really see how beautiful it can be at other times of the year.

So here’s to our common beaver tail cactus.  I will never take it for granted again.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Beaver tail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

Baja California II   9 comments

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Still in Baja.  This was to be a short 1-week dip into Baja California Norte.  I’m a bit over that now, but this is the day for saying Adios to Mexico.  Several years ago I came down here with a friend and we went all the way down to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.  Actually I liked San Jose del Cabo more than the famous tourist center.  It is to the east of Cabo San Lucas and is more of a local’s town.  The beaches all face south, are uncrowded, and (this is crucial) in December the sun shines warmly on them.

The desert in Mexico's Baja California Norte has some surprises, including the rare California Palm, which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The desert in Mexico’s Baja California Norte has some surprises, including a variety of palms which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The other great thing about the southern part of Baja, in my opinion, is the canyon hiking.  About halfway between La Paz and Cabo, just south of the windsurfing mecca of Los Barrilles, you’ll find Agua Caliente.  There are dirt roads leading west away from the highway and towards the mountains.  A great camping site awaits you, and a short walk from your camp brings you to a riverside hot spring.  But if you keep hiking upriver, you enter a granite canyon that is sublime.  I don’t like using that word much, but it fits here.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

There are waterfalls and plunge pools galore, and even a few boulder fields where you can run across the perfectly-placed rocks.  I love doing this, though I can’t seem to generate the speed that I once did.  The trick is to start slowly and to concentrate on the exact spot where your next foot will land.  As you pick up speed, you begin to look for that next spot well before your front foot lands on the rock before.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

Soon you are on the edge of wiping out, which will happen immediately if you lose concentration.  You go until the boulder field ends or your legs give out.  We did it often while climbing in Alaska.  It was a way to break up the monotony of traversing truly enormous boulder fields.  Here in southern Baja, the rounded granite boulders are perfect for it.  And after you get all hot and sweaty you can hit the next freshwater plunge pool.  Excellent!

The plants of Baja California's desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

Plants of Baja California’s desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

This was the first road trip for my beloved VW Westy.  I had just purchased it the summer before, and it really needed an inaugural trip.  I slept above while my buddy slept below.  He continued through Mexico by taking the ferry from La Paz, while I returned north with the van.

Aloe and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

Yucca and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

I also loved a little place called Aqua Verde.  This is a little-known coastal settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula just south of Loreto.  You take a dirt road from the highway just before it cuts inland.  When we took this road it got bad, narrow and with extreme drop-offs.  But this was because a tropical storm had hit the area just a month before.  The road should be better now.

An aloe plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

A yucca plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

It’s worth braving the death-defying road though.  It leads down to an extremely scenic embayment, complete with offshore islands and sandy coves.  And the water is indeed colored a beautiful greenish turquoise.  When we visited, there was only a single family living down there.  The matriarch will serve meals if you ask.  Otherwise you can camp just about anywhere near or on the beach.  But watch yourself or you will end up doing a lot of digging and cursing getting unstuck.  I recommend bringing a shovel.  There was one American guy down there.  From San Diego, he comes here every year to dive and spearfish.  He says the water off Southern California is just too polluted now.  He loves the family, and this is his time to commune with his beloved sea.  All he requires is his little dinghy and a wetsuit, and he’s happy.  I hope Agua Verde hasn’t changed!

A desert plant on Mexico's Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

A desert plant on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

Not all went well on that trip.  In Loreto on the return north, I had my van side-swiped by a drunk driver while it was parked.  Of course it was a hit and run.  But a small piece of the pickup that hit me was left at the scene, enough to identify the color and even the make of the truck.   Also, I interviewed every business owner on that street and sure enough, it was a swerving, speeding black Toyota pickup that hit me.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

So I spent a couple days wandering the entire city looking for that pickup.  It was sort of fun playing detective, though getting the police to help was frustrating.  When I found a pickup which matched, I actually got a Mexican policeman to follow him, with me in the passenger seat.  When we pulled him over it turned out to not have any damage.  Then the next morning while walking I saw a nearly identical truck with the right damage, parked on the roadside.  But when I returned with a cop, the truck was gone.  I never saw it again.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

On this current trip I did not make it down there, but I did spend some quality time in the desert.  I also hung about in Ensenada for a few days, getting some (cheap) body work done on my van.  Staying away from the Chiquitas has been key to my saving money doing it here instead of at home, where labor rates are much higher.  But I am feeling a little road weary, after almost 3 months.  It’s time to head home.  I can feel it.  But one more post on Baja to come, this time focusing, as I promised last post, on the people I met down here.

A saguaro basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A cardon cactus basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios (or boojum) on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Baja California I   Leave a comment

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

This is my second trip to the Baja Peninsula, and sadly this time I could not travel all the way down to the southern tip.  But that is definitely something I’ll do again with more time.  On the bright side, on this trip I spent more time in the northern desert, specifically the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir.  There are two sections to this park, the northern (which I posted on last time) and the southern (which is bisected by Highway 1 and so is more accessible).

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants often take the place of trees.

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants (including these yuccas) often take the place of trees.

I drove down to the little town of El Rosario, which is where the highway turns inland from the Pacific Coast.  There I met a couple friendly American expats, one of which let me park and camp on his property.  The other guy has a restaurant, and since he’s a commercial fisherman this meant some excellent fish that night for dinner.  El Rosario is nothing special, but for this reason it is sleepy and traditional.  Other towns further down the Peninsula, such as Mulege and especially Loreto, have more going for them.  But predictably, this results in their also being touristy.  Loreto’s development as a retirement haven has completely transformed that formerly pleasant seaside town.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Striking inland, the highway heads down the granite spine of the Peninsula, and soon you find yourself in a beautiful desert.  It is floored with giant boulders of granite, and features an enormous variety of desert flora.  This is the unique Baja California Desert.  The endangered California Fan Palm grows here, as do the fascinating cirios (or boojum tree) and the amazing elephant tree.  You will also notice a wide variety of cactus species, as well as some species of the Sonoran Desert.  The Sonoran borders this desert to the east, and runs up along the Sea of Cortez into Arizona.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

I camped and hiked in the area for a few nights, enjoying the desert under some very nice light.  This was courtesy of the weather, which turned stormy for a couple days.  The desert received significant rainfall while I was there, which made for happy plants and colorful skies.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The highway does run through here, and there are precious few tracks heading off into the hills.  And these are mostly 4wd only, especially when things are wet.  So with the loud Mexican truckers rumbling through here during the night, it’s important to find a track that will take you at least a quarter mile from the highway.  Then you can walk as far as you want in order to lose the sound of the highway.  With all the granite monoliths sticking up out of the desert, and the shallow canyons heading in all directions, you will soon lose the sound of  the truckers’ “jake brakes”.

Granite and towering cirios characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

Granite and towering cirios (boojum) characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

This place is a desert botanist’s dream.  What diversity!

This species of fan palm is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

This species, the California fan palm (left), is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

Make sure you are not like the 99.9% of people who rush down the peninsula headed for the warmth of Baja California Sur.  I do understand.  Mostly Canadian, but plenty of American snowbirds as well, they all have their favorite places to land, and they’re in a hurry to get there.  But it’s a long long drive (well over 1000 miles one-way from San Diego to Cabo), so make it a point to stop and stretch your legs in some of the fine desert you’ll pass.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A big cardon cactus soars into the Baja skies.

And this stretch in the north, where the highway crosses Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir, is some of the most beautiful on the entire peninsula.  If you like stars, do more than stop and take a walk.  Camp here at elevation.  Although the stars are nice and bright on the beach as well, they have an extra sparkle up here.  Next up is a bit more on the people and culture here.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and cardon cactus of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Death Valley VI: A Cute Fish   2 comments

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

This is the last of three posts on the geology and ecology of Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them.  Remember for my images, click on them to be taken to the website, where purchase for download or prints (framed or unframed) is very simple.  These photos will be up in their full-sized glory soon, but if you are interested now, please contact me.  These versions are too small to do anything with, so please enjoy them without attempting to download from the blog.  Thanks.

One of Death Valley's many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

One of Death Valley’s many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

ICE AGES

Death Valley was influenced by the Pleistocene Ice Ages that started a couple million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.  No, glaciers did not descend into the valley; it never got that cold. But the large ice sheets to the north led to a much wetter climate throughout most of the ice-free parts of the continent.  So as you might imagine, large basins like Death Valley filled with large lakes.  At one time there were lakes hundreds of miles long.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manly, at one time 80 miles long.  Where did the water go?  Underground of course.  You see the top of this great aquifer at Badwater, and in wet years (2004) a shallow lake reappears atop the normally dry salt flats.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of, yes, the road.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of (you guessed it) the road.

 The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest remnant of the paradise for water birds that the West was during the Ice Age.  This world of wetlands supported a healthy early Native American population.  As the lakes shrank and dried up some 10,000 years ago, the native groups migrated north and east, the evaporite minerals accumulated in great quantities, and desert pup fish evolved.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

 PUP FISH

Can fish be cute?  Sure they can!  The cute little pup fish that make Death Valley their home are small remnants of once-huge schools that swam the huge lakes of Ice Age times.  If you know about the great Rift Valley lakes of Africa (Tanganyika, Malawi, etc.), you might know of the beautiful little aquarium fish that make those lakes their homes.  The same was true in North America during the wetter times of the Ice Age.  When the lakes dried up and separated into smaller, shallower and saltier bodies of water, those fish were forced to adapt to progressively warmer and saltier water.

 This is exactly the sort of crisis that drives accelerated rates of evolution.  It’s a changing environment that separates breeding populations into smaller and smaller parts that most easily leads to very specialized life forms, adapted to a specific environment.  In the case of the pup fish, this story has reached an extreme point in modern times at Devil’s Hole, a separate section of the National Park located not far east in Nevada.  Here live one of the world’s rarest species, the Devil’s Hole pup fish.  These small fish hide in the deep crevices of an extensive spring system.  The water, a remnant itself of a much bigger body, is incredibly salty.

Pup fish are super-specialized creatures, a testament to how difficult it is for nature to kill off one of its own.  They can withstand high salt concentrations and very warm water.  They are most likely doomed, however, as the climate of the American West continues to become warmer and more arid.   But they will continue their fight so long as we don’t do something stupid like pump nearby groundwater dry.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

I hope this little tour of one of my favorite playgrounds has made you want to visit, has given you a good knowledge background, and spurred you to do some additional research.  There is plenty of good information on the Web, and not all of it on Wikipedia!  I also hope this has given you an appreciation for how the geology of a region influences almost everything else about it.  It’s even true where you live!

I apologize for not writing quite so much on desert ecology.  Hmm…maybe I should do just one more post!

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

Death Valley V: Geologic History   Leave a comment

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

This is the second of three posts on the natural history background for a visit to Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope it sparks some interest in these subjects, because if you visit this desert park, you will be hard-pressed to ignore its stunning geology and arid ecology.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

The rocks exposed in Death Valley go back nearly two billion years.  As you walk through canyons like Titus or Marble, you will see layer upon layer of a dark gray sedimentary rock (often weathering red to orange).  A great thing to do on a hot day in a canyon is to go into the shade of these walls and lean your whole body against the cool gray rock.  This is limestone, and it tells of a time when this area was covered in a warm subtropical sea.

The famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

The famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

Back in Paleozoic time (250-600 million years ago), there was a quiet coastline not far east of here one very similar to the modern Atlantic coast of North America.  Marine algae and other small creatures pulled CO2 and calcium out of the seawater to form their shells. These lime muds accumulated layer upon layer, eventually to become limestone.  Sand, silt and mud covered the shallow marine shelf at times, leading to sandstone, siltstone and shale.

Later, during the time of dinosaurs (the Mesozoic), the whole region was the focus of mountain building, thus emerging from the sea.  And mountain building means plate tectonics.  At that time, the ancestral Pacific Plate (called the Farallon Plate by geologists) pushed underneath the western edge of North America – a subduction zone.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

The incredible pressures generated along this subduction zone made the limestone and other rocks pay dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  These sedimentary rocks were originally deposited in horizontal layers, and as you can easily see in the naked mountains of Death Valley, they have been folded, faulted, and otherwise tortured.  Masses of granitic magma, melted crustal rocks from below, pushed up into the sedimentary rocks.  This granite is best exposed to the south, in Joshua Tree and other parts of southern California.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist's Palette shows the playa with its salt pan.  A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist’s Palette shows the playa with its salt pan. A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

The spectacular results of this ultra slow-motion collision can be seen on any canyon hike in Death Valley.  In addition, many of the rocks have been changed – metamorphosed – into a wholly different kind of rock.  The uplifted area was slowly worn down by erosion over a long, long time, eventually forming a low plain.  In other words, there were no rocks formed, in this case from the Jurassic to the Eocene, a period of 130 million years!  The missing time interval shows up as an ancient erosional surface in the rocks, what is called an unconformity.

 Unconformities are important horizons in any rock sequence, and this one shows itself in various places across Death Valley.  You can see a textbook example of an angular unconformity (the most obvious kind) in Darwin Canyon.  This canyon is about 19 miles from Panamint Springs (where you’ll ask for directions and road conditions).  It shows as a line in the rocks (surface in 3 dimensions) where layers below are at a completely different angle than those above.  In the same area is some fantastic folding.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

THE BIG RIP

Long after the dinosaurs had disappeared, starting several million years ago, this area began to be torn apart by rifting at the edge of North America.  It’s a process that continues today.  By this time the subduction zone off the west coast had shrunk northward, where it still grinds away off the coast of Oregon and Washington.  It was replaced by the San Andreas Fault, which still marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.

The lateral sliding movement of the enormous Pacific Plate moving north past the western margin of North America is essentially torquing the entire western part of North America.  It’s caused a clockwise rotation and the crust has broken into large fault block mountain ranges bounded by normal faults.  This rifting (as rifting typically does) opened pathways for lava to rise and erupt.  Throughout Death Valley you will see areas of volcanic rocks – mostly tuff (rock made from volcanic ash) and basalt (dark lava rock).  Ubehebe Crater in the north past Scotty’s Castle is just one example.

The skies above Death Valley are the playground of Navy pilots from nearby China Lake.

One of the only times you’ll look up from the stunning landscape of Death Valley is when a deep boom makes you notice the Navy jet pilots from nearby China Lake, who make the skies their playground.

 The fault-block mountains caused by rifting are Death Valley’s most obvious geological structure.  But in this far southern part of the Basin and Range, you are looking at a deeper level of rifting.  So there are not only the steep normal faults, but also low-angle “detachment” faults.  Think about the steep normal faults that border the mountain fronts curving and taking on more shallow angles as you mentally travel down their surfaces, and you have a great idea of a detachment.

Incidentally, remember the granite formed during the Mesozoic?  Go south, to Joshua Tree and other places in Southern California, and you’ll see the masses of granite all around.  This means you are seeing much deeper levels of the rifting of North America than you see in the northern Basin and Range.  Keep going and you’ll come to the Gulf of California, where the Sea of Cortez has already invaded the rift.  It’s as if a giant zipper was slowly opening, south to north along the western edge of the continent.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley's sand dunes.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes.

 Back to detachment faults: they can cause whole mountain ranges to literally slide down a sort of shallow ramp, ending up miles from where they started.  Tucki Peak may have slid in this manner.  They really are the most efficient way to rip apart a continent!  You can see these large, low-angled surfaces where they help to form the geographic features called turtle-backs.  One such site is about 16 miles south of Badwater, where if you stop at Mormon Point and look north into the Black Mountains, you’ll notice one of these ramp-like detachment faults.

One more post coming to finish up with Death Valley, this one on the Ice Ages and the pup fish.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.

 

Snow Canyon State Park, Utah   9 comments

Near St George, Utah, sunset illuminates Johnson Canyon and the cottonwoods hanging onto their leaves.

I’m being reminded on an almost daily basis why I think this country is the most beautiful in the world.  I haven’t been everywhere of course, and I make the comparison only to highlight the beauty here, not to somehow take away from that spread all across the globe.

The southwestern Utah desert hosts some very coloful lichens which grow on rocks and other surfaces; here at Snow Canyon State Park.

I have yet another playground in this part of the Southwest.  It’s the Utah State Park called Snow Canyon.  No, it’s not named for its climate.  In fact, today was Thanksgiving and Snow Canyon reached about 70 degrees with nothing but sunshine.  Snow is not common here.  It was named for an early Utah family, the Snows.

The basalt lava-rock forming the lowlands here at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah wraps around the older sandstone promontories.

At 7011 acres of canyon country, and only a half hour’s drive from St George, it is one of the best State Parks I know that is near a population center.  Chugach State Park in Alaska, in Anchorage’s backyard, has to take the prize for most awesome State Park near a town (if not most awesome period).

Ancient sand dunes, petrified and laid bare at Snow Canyon State Park in southwestern Utah.

Snow Canyon has very interesting geology and botany.  There are big and bold sandstone monoliths that form cross-bedded petrified sand dunes of the upper Kayenta Formation, along with the Navajo Sandstone.  These two formations, which along with the desert dunes include sands and muds laid down by streams, were formed in the Jurassic, a period when dinosaurs roamed the river valleys and deserts of North America.

Water from springs collects in Snow Canyon, Utah.

The sandstone, though it is much older, stands up above surrounding black lava rock.  Normally, the older rock lies below the younger rock.  Here, because you had lava flowing down an already eroded landscape, there is what geologists call “inverted topography”.  The lowest parts of Snow Canyon are underlain by rocks as young as a few thousand years old, while the highest peaks are close on 200 million years old!  The basalt was extremely fluid when it erupted (indicating a general lack of gases – water – in the lava), and so it sought out the low places between the sandstone outcrops.  There is much time missing between the Navajo Sandstone and the more recent basalt.

The canyon wall in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, has etched on it the names of some early pioneers.

This unusual geology has resulted in a varied and interesting topography, as well as a nice (for scenery) mix of desert soils and bare outcrop.  The variety starts with color: the sandstone is red and white; the basaltic lava rock nearly black.  The basalt, though it is much younger than the sandstone, has been much more weathered.  So you will see a sandy desert soil over the basalt in the canyon bottom, with a fascinating assemblage of desert plants.  This contrasts starkly with the nearly bare rock of the scenic red sandstone.

Snow Canyon State Park has what is called “inverted topography”, where the much younger basalt lava rock (foreground) lies well below the much older red sandstone.

There are several varieties of cactus, a nice mix of pretty desert shrubs, and a few juniper trees scattered about.  The basalt hosts an enormous variety of beautiful lichen, and the sandstone also has its share of this colorful symbiosis between algae and fungus.  In moist north-facing alcoves, you will find mosses.

The animal life includes coyote and rabbit, along with the occasional mountain lion.  A variety of birds, including spotted towhee, canyon and rock wren, and bluebirds make their homes here.  Yes, you will hear the cascading song of the canyon wren here.

Beavertail cactus, a member of the pricklypear family, is a common sight in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

The park also has some history.  Etched in the canyon wall are several pioneer names from the late 1800s.  You know they are real because one of them was named Harman.  Nobody these days names their son Harman!

This is the preferred outdoor workout place for several nearby fitness spa/ranches.  So in the mornings you will see plenty of vans providing support for sweatsuit-clad “biggest losers”.  They’re the ones who have that incredibly determined look on their red faces as they pass you, huffing and puffing, on the paved bike trail that traverses the length of the canyon.  You will also see plenty of St George’s serious cyclists, clad in colorful lycra.

A group of hikers from a nearby fitness spa/resort get a scenic workout at Snow Canyon State Park in southern Utah.

I think about taking things for granted when I visit places like this.  I’m sure people who use this place for a daily workout venue appreciate its scenic beauty, but I wonder if they take the time to slowly walk through the draws and slickrock slopes here.  I’ve been guilty of the same thing.  Once you decide a place is for running/skiing/biking through, that is the way you always experience it.  I think it is a pretty cool idea to occasionally just grab a camera (or binoculars if you’re a birder) and force yourself to go slow through your favorite local place.

Just outside Snow Canyon State Park, Utah is Johnson Canyon.

I did just that – went slowly – during sunset and the succeeding Thanksgiving morning.  At night I photographed the moonlit landscape and stars.  In the morning, I found all sorts of “intimate landscapes” to photograph.  When the sun became too harsh, I retreated to shaded canyons.  The last time I was here it was springtime, and there were clouds to provide some pretty great light.   Also, the plants had that desert-spring glow to them.  But this time (autumn) was fine too!  In fact, this state park is one of the best I’ve ever seen for landscape and nature photography.  The possibilities are nearly endless if you take the time to explore the park’s nooks and crannies.

Beavertail cactus grows abundantly in Snow Canyon State Park, Utah.

I hope you enjoy the photos.  If you are ever in St George, make a point to make the short drive to Snow Canyon.  I recommend camping at the small campground there, so you are up and at ’em for early morning photography.  The light is somewhat more shaded during late afternoon in the park, as opposed to early mornings.  But this depends, of course, on the season.  Summer is likely to be extremely hot here, but having only been in spring and fall, I can’t say that it’s too uncomfortable.  As they say, it’s a dry heat.

Dusk falls at Snow Canyon State Park in Utah.

Remember that the photos you see here are copyrighted, so if you are interested in one, please contact me.  You can also simply click on a photo to be taken to my website. They are much too small to be of any use if you were to try to download them anyway.  Thanks a bunch for your interest and appreciation.

The tilted layers of sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park are moonlit and stand out against the starry sky.

Bird Photography Follow-Up: Birds of Tikal   Leave a comment

A large male great curassow (Crax rubra) prowls the jungle floor at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.

A quick follow-up to my previous post on bird watching.  I never posted the picture of a great currasow I got in Guatemala, at Tikal.  That error is rectified above.  Tikal is one of the largest Mayan City you can visit, and certainly one of the most spectacular.  It lies in northern Guatemala, and is very easy to access from Belize.  The Peten is an amazing swath of jungle that lies along the southern Yucatan – Guatemala border.  It is incredibly rich in wildlife, and also has many Mayan ruins.  It is definitely the richest hunting ground for archaeologists searching for undiscovered Mayan cities.  Because of its remoteness, it is also a favorite among drug smugglers, who cross into Mexico here on their way to the U.S.

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

A scarlet macaw likes Mayan ruins.

The dramatic Temple 5 in the Mayan city of Tikal rises steeply out of the jungle.

I visited the Peten, including Tikal, in 2010.  I went to Calakmul, a remote Mayan site in far south Yucatan, and we were alone at thoseruins, with their enormous pyramids standing far above the jungle.  I also visited Palenque in Chiapas, where I most certainly was not alone.  Later in the trip, I crossed from western Belize into Guatemala & headed to Tikal.  When I arrived at the nearest town, Peten Itza, I decided to go right up to the ruins.  It’s very easy to catch a van or taxi to Tikal.  Most of the hotels are in Flores, but I think that’s too far from the ruins.  Clouds and rain showers were hanging about, but this turned out to be a blessing.  Not only were the crowds nonexistent, but the atmosphere added much to my photos from that day.

The first thing you notice about Tikal is its size.  You can walk from temple to temple, but unlike most Mayan sites, these walks are actually superb nature walks.  The jungle that separates the major temple complexes is rich in birds, monkeys and even jaguar.  I saw many beautiful birds, a crocodile, and a spider monkey.  As anyone who has been to Tikal knows, the constant calls of oropendula accompany your tour.  What a beautiful forest.  The next day I had much more time to tour the ruins, but it was a beautiful day, so the photos were not as good.  Still, I saw many birds and another monkey.

Tikal is hands-down my favorite Mayan ruin, and I’ve been to all the major ones.  It combines spectacular temples and massive scale with relative remoteness and beautiful surroundings.  It does receive many visitors, but its size means you can get away from the crowds easily.  Still, I would try to go either early in the morning or late, especially if the weather is unsettled.  You will see more wildlife this way, plus your pictures will likely be better than with the bright sunshine (which tends to wash out the subtle colors).

Go see Tikal, and don’t forget your binoculars!

A basilisk lizard hunts his territory in the jungles of Tikal, Guatemala.

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